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Adieu Bjorn Beckman

I just read in the Daily Trust of Sunday, November 10, 2019, of the passing away of my teacher – the Swedish-born world class scholar,…

I just read in the Daily Trust of Sunday, November 10, 2019, of the passing away of my teacher – the Swedish-born world class scholar, Professor of political science and leading specialist in Nigerian political economy, Bjorn Beckman. The newspaper reported that the distinguished academic and mentor to numerous political scientists with bias in political economy, both in Nigeria and on the global academic scene, died on Wednesday at the age of 81. It was further reported that he taught at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, between 1978 and 1987.

For those of us who studied political science at the university in the period under review (mine, 1984 to 1987), ABU, and, indeed, the famous ‘FASS’- the defunct vibrant Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – was not only about the fiery, fire spitting and relatively more known household names of Bala Usman, Patrick, Yusuf Bangura, the Kwanashie brothers, George and Mike, Alkassim Abba, Sule Bello, Femi Odekunle, Sabo Bako, etc, there were also other influential scholars like the late Bjorn Beckman with a legacy of profound and enduring impact on the content and character of learning and general scholarship, as well as overall happenings both within and beyond the four walls of that great citadel of learning.

Yours sincerely for one could recall how the undergraduate courses taught by Bjorn Beckman in the department of political science, particularly ‘State and Economy’ and ‘Imperialism and Underdevelopment’ helped to shape and develop one’s interest to pursue advanced academic career in political economy, despite later in life finding oneself in an occupational calling- career university administration – that may be considered inconsistent with such radical scholarship.

In particular, the final year(then Part 3) course, ‘Imperialism and Underdevelopment’ was organised in such a way that Beckman would take the class for one hour on Monday to be followed on Tuesday with seminar presentations by designated members of the class on selected books on the topic taught by the lecturer the previous day. Those seminar sessions were not only breathtaking but also instrumental in grooming and preparing us for any future intellectual engagement or disputation, as the case may be.

For sure, Bjorn Beckman was not the only influential don who taught us in the department of political science. There were others like the veteran professor and exemplary diplomat, Ibrahim Gambari who taught my class “Machiavelli’ for just two weeks, Mrs. Hendrickson, the British-born expert in political theory, Ya’u Haruna, Jibrin (Jibo) Ibrahim, late Rauf Mustapha, Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, Eric Ejembi, I.E.S. Amdii, etc, all of whom were unique in their own ways. However, in the area of political economy, Beckman was simply the ‘boss’ with so many protégés without number, and whose great influence in the teaching and spread of political economy at ABU, nay, Nigerian academia will remain for a very long time to come.

Not only that Beckman was, like most of his FASS colleagues then, such an intensely passionate scholar that when occasions warranted, he would not hesitate to bare his intellectual fangs on any real or perceived intellectual or other foe.

In this respect, I could vividly recall how one Saturday morning at a Faculty Seminar, Beckman descended on the then American Ambassador to Nigeria and took him to the cleaners over what he described as their ‘global imperialistic agenda’. It was in the wake of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister for which Beckman further publicly accused the American CIA of being behind the ‘political assassination’.

Shortly after this incident that left the American Ambassador shell shocked and devoid of his diplomatic mojo, I also got to know about the fierce intellectual exchange between Beckman and a fellow influential political scientist at ABU, Okello Oculi, during the famous Karl Marx Centenary Conference that was hosted by ABU in 1983. Again, I was privileged to witness how on another occasion Beckman became emotional and barely held his tears following a critique of the place of the peasantry in the Nigerian political economy, by one of his colleagues. Such is the stuff Bjorn Beckman was made of that one can venture to say, without fear of contradiction, that in terms of contributions to departmental growth and development, Beckman was almost to the Department of Political Science what the late Abdullahi Smith was to the Department of History.

Over the years in the course of my working career, I have had cause to, not on a few occasions, answer how and why I opted to study and obtain higher degrees in political economy, instead of public administration, policy analysis or any course corresponding or consistent with my professional calling. The last time I had a serious discourse on the issue was barely two years ago when I appeared before an interview panel led by Most Rev. Father (Dr) Mathew Hassan Kukah. When I replied Rev. Kukah that it was personal interest that led me to specialise in political economy, he followed it up by wondering why I was not on the teaching cadre since in his opinion, I would be more suited there. To which I responded that I would subsequently look into the possibility of switching into academics.

However, the truth of the matter is that notwithstanding my choice of professional career, the impact of ABU scholars like Beckman had been so profound and always refreshing that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle myself from it. For instance, while working as a professional university administrator, the inspiration for my Master’s degree thesis came directly from a Beckman’s 1983 theoretical masterpiece entitled ‘Capitalist State Formation in the Third World’. Painfully, I have lost the paper but its memory had remained, for me, vintage Beckman: elegant yet profound and fascinating.

Similarly, the choice of subject for my doctorate degree thesis was essentially derived from the inspiration to challenge established orthodoxies, ideas, theories and or narratives beyond the surface, as imbibed in us by the Beckmans of this world. It is thus a shocker that Beckman’s death occurred only few weeks after an assignment undertaken under the leadership of another doyen of ABU scholarship, the historian George Kwanashie, had rekindled my fond memories of the ‘largest university South of the Sahara’. But then that is consistent with the realities of social life for which no condition is permanent.

In conclusion, a curious reader of this tribute would have noticed right from the beginning that I did not include ‘Professor’ in the title as part of the deceased name. This was a deliberate decision taken as part of my respect for the tradition established by the accomplished scholars of FASS, of non- display of their academic titles, whether Professor or even Associate Professor as is commonly done nowadays. This respect becomes more pertinent now in view of how some academics (including political scientists) who are no more than specialists in mercenary sojourn and primordial politicking in the Nigerian academia, not to talk of those writing theses for their students, are parading and eulogising themselves as ‘professors of repute’.

Indeed, I can only say at this point adieu Bjorn Beckman my great teacher, inimitable and favourite political economist of all times!

Idris Jibrin sent in this tribute from Keffi