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Béchir Ben Yahmed: Witness to an African century

By Dominique Mataillet, Olivier Marbot
Posted on Tuesday, 4 May 2021 23:14, updated on Thursday, 6 May 2021 10:34

Béchir Ben Yahmed in his office at Jeune Afrique, in Paris, 2010 © Bruno Lévy / JA

Founder of 'Jeune Afrique' and 'La Revue', observer and committed editorialist, Béchir Ben Yahmed was a privileged witness of all the upheavals in Africa and the Middle East throughout the 20th century. He passed away on 3 May 2021 in Paris.

For the past 10 years, Béchir Ben Yahmed (BBY) worked on his memoirs, having given into his usual perfectionistic tendencies and perpetual dissatisfaction. It was only recently that BBY was willing to ease up a little on it. But to put on paper the way he saw himself was a rare and undoubtedly difficult exercise for him.

He described himself as a journalist, a businessman, a man of the left. Not unaware that some said he was stubborn, but rather “persevering”, as he corrected them. Authoritarian? “It’s a legend,” he said, before explaining that in his youth he had been “sickly shy” and that this character trait perhaps explained his sometimes abrupt approach.

Béchir Ben Yahmed, in his office at Jeune Afrique, in 2007. © Vincent Fournier/JA

He came from a generation of young pro-independence activists and followed a different path from most of his comrades, but he said he had no regrets about it. “Of all my peers, these future high officials of the emerging Third World, none followed the route I took,” he wrote. “Most have been ministers, international civil servants, prime ministers, sometimes even heads of state. ”

Minister at 28 years old

Jeune Afrique, he said, had been his life’s work. Many, who knew him as a member of the first government of Tunisia’s Henri Bourguiba, were surprised decades later to learn that he did not follow that path and asked “what happened” for the young and promising minister to turn his back on politics.

‘Jeune Afrique’ came to represent a form of collective consciousness of an entire continent, which the international press had difficulty understanding. A demanding role, impossible to hold. And yet, the challenge has not only been met, but achieved. — Hervé Bourges, the former head of French broadcasting

BBY replied without hesitation: “I did not want it. Because there is a price to pay, which I refuse to pay. I don’t want to do what politicians do to get votes: beg, make sacrifices, compromise. I am incapable of that.”

Habib Bourguiba, President of the Tunisian Republic, Béchir Ben Yahmed, Minister of Information (with sunglasses) and Ahmed Mestiri, Minister of Finance on 25 July 25, 1957 in Tunis.

Béchir Ben Yahmed was therefore, for more than six decades, first, a journalist and then also a press boss. “A great boss of the press,” insisted Hervé Bourges, the former head of French broadcasting, in a chapter of his Dictionnaire Amoureux de l’Afrique. “He was the first in Africa to exercise this noble profession,” continued the television man who died in 2020.

Bourges continued: “The confidant, the daily interlocutor, the partner [to the leaders of the continent] in this construction of the new African expression. Of course, they sometimes banned his newspaper, then they allowed it again, they fell out with him, they loved him or hated him. They have always valued him.”

Jeune Afrique,” concluded Bourges, “came to represent a form of collective consciousness of an entire continent, which the international press had difficulty understanding. A demanding role, impossible to hold. And yet, the challenge has not only been met, but achieved.”

From Djerba island to Tunis

The story of the man whose name would become inseparable from the title Jeune Afrique began in Djerba, in southern Tunisia. Béchir Ben Yahmed was born there on 2 April 1928. His parents, Amor and Slima, had a dozen children. Only five survived: four boys and one girl. The eldest, Sadok, was born in 1915. He was followed by Othman and Brahim, then, in 1923, by Temna. Béchir is the youngest.