Remembering an Optimist

Guest Columnist: ISSA AREMU

By Issa Aremu

Tomorrow in Abuja a memorial will hold for the late Björn Beckman, (BB), the celebrated Swedish (sorry, African-Swedish!) radical political economist. He was laid to eternal rest on the December 6 last year exactly a month he passed away on November 6, 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, his home country.

He died at 81 years.
Beckman was a member of the Political Science teaching staff at the Ahmadu Bello University, Samaru Zaria in the eighties.
I read Economics, having completed preliminary students at the School of Basic studies (SBS) in 1977/1978. The then Faculty of Arts and Social Science ( FASS) was a centre of radical political economy oriented scholarship.

All students of social sciences and arts were positively impacted upon by the critical thoughts of star Marxist scholars like BB, the late Dr Bala Usman, Professor A D Yahaya, Professor Yusuf Bangura, Dr Metuge, Professor Mike Kwaneshe, Professor Patrick Wilmot and Professor Akin Fadahunsi among others. Certainly tomorrow’s memorial would raise the nostalgia of the robust battle of ideological ideas in the 80s, the anti-climax being the 1983 Karl Marx Centenary Conférence. The late Professor Claude Ake of University of Port Harcourt was a great African scholar of Marxist persuasion. He died on November 7th, in the tragic ADC airline disaster in 1997. Ake just like BB nurtured our fertile intellectual minds in the late 70s as undergraduates of social science with indelible intellectual legacy on African development studies. The amazing intellectual outputs of BB with his numerous collaborative comrades, elevated and popularised political economy as tool for understanding Africa development process just as Ake did.

Africa is in profound despair caused by the entrenched pessimism (or is it cynicism?) that the continent cannot take-off not to talk of catching up. Nigeria and (indeed Africa) has almost been declared literarily a failed state/continent.

John Campbell was a former US ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007. He wrote a book entitled Nigeria: Dancing On the Brink in 2010. He almost predicted that Nigeria would not survive 2011 elections in Nigeria. BB’s works radically are upbeat and optimistic about prospects of Africa’s development either through the capitalist way or his favored and preferred socialist development. In BB, Africa lost an enthusiastic and passionate scholar about the prospects of development and transformation, unionization and workers’ rights, industrialization, decent jobs creation, poverty eradication and popular democracy. The amazing intellectual outputs of BB and his numerous collaborative comrades, elevated and popularised political economy of Marxist bent as a tool for understanding Africa development process.

Goal 17 of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs) 2030 emphasizes partnership as a critical success factor to promote development and eradicate poverty. Very few global scholars had actually practised remarkable partnership in scholarship in understanding Africa’s development as Björn Beckman did. He was at home in selfless collaborative intellectual work with others in understanding our world.

Two of Beckman’s works always capture my imagination: Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria, originally published in 1985 and reprinted in 1989, Union Power in the Nigerian Textile Industry: Labour Regime and Adjustment (1998). The two works were in collaboration with his comrade wife, Gunilla Andre.

The textile union is indebted to the authors for the couple’s critical studies of the first generation import substitution industry, although in their humility and modesty they extended same appreciation for the union’s cooperation for the seminal studies. The 300- page book of 14 chapters documents the growth and development of textile industry as well as textile union, an affiliate of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC.
Beckman and Andrea brought out refreshing original findings and conclusions about “NUTGTWN: it’s experiences, problems and achievements”. The two-decade long (70s and 90s) covers the period of “Dramatic change” in Nigeria involving boom, burst and IMF/World Bank inspired adjustment programmes From the rather “small picture of union power in textile industry, the author presents us with the biggest pictures of issues industrialization, production processes, conflict resolution and mediation, power relations between the state and civil society etc. The finding is that in the textile industry, a “union based labour regime” characterised by domination and contestation is entrenched.

The submission is that even in the condition of economic crisis, there has been “expansion” rather than “contraction” of union power in the textile industry: work place, constitutional regulation of conflict and legality had replaced hitherto arbitrariness of employers.
The key player in this documented story is Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, who in their words as a “ resourceful General Secretary” reinforced the “unmistakable organisational self- confidence” of the union “with his dynamic leadership”.

Drawing a bigger picture from this, the authors observed that the emergence of union power reflects the capability of Nigeria’s society to manage conflicts through contestation and consensus building, representation and mediation as well as contribution to the ‘democratic reconstitution of the state’.

Judging by the ways NUTGTWN had inadvertently compelled recalcitrant companies to adjust, the authors argue and convincingly too that “union-based regime is consistent with modernisation of Nigeria’s substantial textile industry, making it more productive and competitive.”
Blessed are the dead for they shall no more be suspected of our current failings.

Gunilla and BB took case studies of six textile mills in Kano and Kaduna. The oldest mill, Kaduna Textile industry limited, where the story of “how it all began in 1984 shut down in May 2002! What the late Premier Ahmadu Bello nurtured and expanded out of nothing is yet to be revived by 19 Northern states governors. Only United Nigeria Textile Limited (UNTL ) and Chellco in Kaduna are operating today in Kaduna. In 2007, UNTL in Kaduna with direct 5000 jobs actually shut down. It only reopened in 2010 but far from its capacity utilization of the 80s and 90s when BB and Gunilla did their studies. It employs less than 2000 today.

The three Kano factories, Bagauda, Gaskiya and NTM are shut down. In 1986, when the union power study commenced, Textile union lost 20000 members from 70,000 to 50,000. Today paid up union membership is just 10,000. BB’s analysis of union power could only have taken place when Textile industry was thriving. Of course there had always been “crisis before the crisis”:, smuggling and foreign exchange crisis which undermined industry’s competitiveness in the 80s. But the whole sale massive closures of textile mills have greatly weakened union power. No thanks to persistent power failure, massive dumping of Textile materials from China, product counterfeiting, inconsistent industrial policies and shortage of basic raw materials like cotton.

The renewed interest of President Buhari in reviving Textile Industry further points to union power in advocacy. The industry ( whether it is 1.0 or 4.0) industry-remains the key driver of sustainable jobs and development for most national economies of developing nations.
Indeed for Nigeria and Africa to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2030, especially SDG 9 dealing with industry and innovation.
Africa must copy China’s industrialization drive which has within 20 years moved over 250 million people out of poverty through manufacturing, beneficiation and industrialization.
The best tribute to BB will be to revive the industry which once served as a case study that African industrialization was possible.

*Issa Aremu, Member, National Institute and General Secretary, National Union of Textile and Garment Workers of Nigeria Kaduna.