My mentor, Béchir Ben Yahmed, the founder of Jeune Afrique, a stable that dominated pan-African publishing in French, died from Covid last year. He had just finished working on his memoirs, which took him many years to write. J’assume [“I assume”] is the title of the book, which is still only available in French. Translations in English and Arabic should be in the making.
I was second in command during the first 10 years of the group in Paris. The magazine quickly became the voice of Africa during an era when the coverage of Africa was almost entirely in the hands of Western media who looked at the continent from their own perspective and interests.
Béchir was born in 1928 on the small island of Djerba, in the south of Tunisia. He walked barefoot until the age of nine yet he was to became the youngest minister in Habib Bourguiba’s first government following Tunisia’s independence.
BBY, as he was known , was a feared and admired journalist and publisher. He trained and shaped dozens of authors, writers and journalists, some of whom became hugely successful.
His book relates his difficulties as the head of the most important and most influential pan-African publishing group. The magazine Jeune Afrique has been an essential read for knowing and understanding the story of the continent from the early sixties, when most African countries became independent, to its current situation.
It covers political affairs, business and culture from an African perspective and defends the interests and the unity of the continent.
Totally independent, the magazine paid a heavy price defending democratic and civic liberties. Jeune Afrique was banned during many long years by autocratic African governments. Some even financed competitors to try to kill it, but all failed. Some tried to buy it, but it was not for sale!
The book is a fascinating read. BBY is an excellent storyteller. He provides insight in his encounters with the leaders of Africa and judges most of them severely. The one exception was Bourguiba, for whom he had the greatest admiration.
BBY does not hide his opinions and says frankly and honestly what he thought. There are thousands of anecdotes and examples, retracing with a human touch the history of the past 60 years in Africa.
I do not think Béchir ever enjoyed a proper holiday! He was a seven-day workaholic, an avid reader, a prolific writer (with a green ink pen). Week after week, in his column “Ce que je crois” [“What I believe in”], he gave his comments on what was going on in Africa.
With hindsight, we can see that most of the time he was on the right track of history. His battles were always for the correct causes.
As one who knew well both the man and his group, I would have liked him to have talked more about the friends who helped him when he needed them most. I reproach him for not, as a mark of gratitude, mentioning some of people who played a really big role in Jeune Afrique one way or another.
The book also avoids some important questions relating to the funding of the group and its shareholders. However, at the same time, BBY gives a lengthy explanation of some of the financial difficulties Jeune Afrique has always encountered.
Africa owes him a lot
Publishing in Africa has never been easy. It is a miracle that the magazine surmounted all its difficulties, as the odds were against it. Over the years, it lost an incredible amount of money, adding up to many millions of euros.
It was the determination of one single man, BBY, which in the end made it a success. Africa owes him a lot. Millions of Africans are and have been avid readers of Jeune Afrique. Generation after generation, young Africans consider their magazine as their Bible. Many became the leaders of their countries and played a massive role in the development of the continent.
Béchir wanted to create a Foundation to take over the magazine. That proved to be impossible. It is his sons who are now safely at the helm. They are fighting a new battle as the publishing world is moving from print to digital.
The story of Jeune Afrique is also my story. With Emena, my wife, we spent some of the best years of our lives, working days and nights with Béchir, assisted by a bunch of passionate professionals, the best in the field, dreaming about a better future for our Africa.
Afif Ben Yedder is the founder of IC publications, whose stable includes New African, African Business and African Banker magazines as well as IC Events, the conference arm.