By Kashim Ibrahim-Imam
Forbes described him as “the face of new Nigeria”. In reality, this doesn’t even begin to sum up the essence of the Dangote phenomenon. “The spine of industrial Africa” would be a more fitting description, but even this tag is only a starting point.
In itself, the name “Dangote” evokes so many distinctions that it is difficult to produce a fitting tribute in a mere thousand word article. But then it is impossible to let a moment like this one pass without penning at least a modest acknowledgment of the man’s extraordinary accomplishments.
To some, it may seem like the Aliko Dangote story happened by some stroke of good fortune, but in truth there was nothing fortuitous about this remarkable African success story. Even as a starry-eyed teenager, Aliko was very clear in his mind about his mission, travelling abroad to acquire university education in entrepreneurship, returning to Nigeria to establish his own private venture at a very young age. It would have been nothing short of fantasy to have imagined back then that, thirty years after establishing a modest reading company with just N500,000 he borrowed from his uncle, Aliko’s brainchild would transform into a sprawling $22 billion (valued by Africa Business Magazine in 2014) international conglomerate spanning 18 African countries. To put this in perspective, this valuation was worth more than the GDP of Zambia, Cyprus, Georgia, and even oil-rich Gabon.
Four of his companies listed on the Nigeria Stock Exchange with a market capitalisation of N3.8 trillion reportedly constitute almost half of the stock exchange in March 2016. Aliko Dangote seemed to have aimed only for the top on almost all the indices of business. Rated as the biggest quoted company and the largest conglomerate in West Africa, the Dangote group was the only Nigerian company listed on the “Fortune 2000” in 2011.
Beyond the soft data, the Dangote brand has straddled the market and towered above the competition in almost every sector he has touched. In cement production, the 13 million metric tonnes Obajana Plant is the biggest in Africa. With a combined capacity of 43 million MTPA spread across Africa, no other producer in the continent has either the size or the reach. Ventures Africa recently labeled Dangote “Africa’s King of Cement”.
Perhaps a greater significance of the comparison lies in the role which Dangote’s cement plants play in Nigeria’s economy. The Obajana plant alone is one of Nigeria’s single largest investments outside the oil industry. Collectively, the combined domestic production by Dangote’s plants currently exceeds domestic consumption of 20 million MTPA, making Nigeria a net exporter.
By this feat Dangote appears to be taking Nigeria’s long standing dream of economic diversification and import substitution beyond the realm of national development planning. With the refinery project, he seems to have taken it squarely on his shoulders. With a refining capacity of 650,000 bpd, the Dangote Lekki Refinery, petrochemical and fertilizer project has been described as “the largest single train of its kind in the world”. It dwarfs the total installed capacity of Nigeria’s four refineries, while its petrochemical unit is 13 times the capacity of the government’s Eleme Petrochemical.
For all that have been said about Dangote’s sprawling empire, the refinery project remains, in my humble view, his most audacious venture to date. It is about the sheer size, but is also about the way the project is shaping current policy and future projections for Nigeria’s economy. Both the government’s Economic Recovery Plan and the oil & gas sector road map projects to end importation of fuel and become a net importer of value added petrochemicals by 2019. Without any doubt, the Dangote refinery will play a crucial part in this massive repositioning of Nigeria’s economy. The refinery will save Nigeria at least $10 billion per annum in products importation.
From foods and beverages to construction and petrochemicals, Aliko has always had the proverbial “Midas Touch” – everything he touches has simply turned to gold.
Aliko may come across as a man who is not just obsessed with making money, but making lots of it. In truth, the man’s heart is as large as his purse. Looking closely, you get the impression that making deals is simply his day’s job, while making society better is his life’s obsession. In a TIME Magazine tribute in 2014, Bill Gates described Dangote as “Africa’s richest man who does good in addition to doing well”. Obviously, Mr Gates must have been struck by the sheer size of the man’s charity – what he commits to good works is not just peanuts or spare change. The Dangote Foundation, set up in March 2014, is the largest in Africa. It has a $1.25 billion endowment. So, whether he is making money or giving it away, Aliko doesn’t do anything on a meager scale or in half measures.
The Foundation has made crucial humanitarian interventions in Nigeria and abroad. Whether committing to the eradication of polio or contributing to the North-east rehabilitation or intervening to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa, Dangote has proved that doing good is worth doing well. On a single occasion, he donated 130 trailers of assorted foodstuff to victims of the Boko Haram insurgency, for which my Governor, Kashim Shettima, led a delegation to thank him. The Dangote Foundation was the largest private donor to the African Union Ebola Trust Fund, with a donation of $3 million.
In promoting good causes around the world, Dangote has not only given his money, he devotes his time as well. He is a member of UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative steering committee, the Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria, the Global Business Coalition for Education led by Gordon Brown, and sits on the board of the ONE Campaign. For him, minding social causes is equally serious business.
It is easy to see how Aliko Dangote’s twin passions – free enterprise and social development – converge in his current involvement in global policy advocacy. One of such project is a global energy policy initiative which Dangote is promoting in collaboration with other leading entrepreneurs and African leaders on the platform of the World Economic Forum. He is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and sits on the board of the Corporate Council on Africa. There are several other platforms on which Aliko Dangote is using to advance global economic and development policy agenda.
In spite of his vast wealth and extensive global presence, despite being named by Forbes as the most powerful man in Africa, Aliko Dangote has largely stayed above the fray of partisan politics. It is indeed a testament to this that he has stayed largely above controversies and has fared equally with successive administrations. He made his forays into manufacturing largely under Obasanjo’s administration, served on Yar’dua’s economic team, but was awarded the prestigious national honors award of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) by President Jonathan. Dangote remains the only Nigerian to have received the award, who did not occupy the top three political offices in the country. In January 2016, Aliko Dangote was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari to serve in the Presidential Committee on North-East Rehabilitation.
On a personal level, I have tried hard but unsuccessfully to drag him into the murky waters of politics. Particularly on two occasions I tried to persuade him to run for president, but he would not budge. Privately, we usually call him Mr. President. But to me in particular he would quickly reply with the qualification: “of Dangote Group”.
For all his achievements, what strikes you most about the man is his unassuming personality. For a man of such immense wealth, it is remarkable how easy it is to miss Aliko in a small crowd. With modest luxury and almost no ostentation, Dangote cuts the image of one who is immune to the lure of material acquisition. He has no fancy cars – just a reliable Toyota Landcruiser; no fancy dresses – designer shoes or diamond wristwatches; no sprawling mansion in the US, in South Africa or in London. Not even in Kano or Abuja. I do not know who convinced him to put up the structure on Karimu Kotun Street, but that is all that he has.
Whenever he is in Abuja he stayed in the house of our friend, Senator Gbenga Ogunniya, in Apo legislators’ quarters, and subsequently in Femi Otedola’s house on my street, Aso Drive. In other cities, he stays in hotels. He calmly explains that it helps avoid the need for personal security, domestic staff and maintenance.
He also eats simple. We had breakfast three weeks ago and I ended up not eating anything even after the menu was re-jigged – half raw egg, chicken sausage and plantain.
He has one cell phone and has maintained one phone number since GSM technology was born in Nigeria. He answers all his calls and would always return missed calls.
Given his near-austere lifestyle, his legendary humility and ability to mingle effortlessly with all classes of people, one forgets easily that we are describing the richest black man.
Aliko’s astonishing humility was by no means the product of any humble origins. Born in Kano on April 10, 1957 to Alhaji Mohammed Dangote, a wealthy trader and Hajia Mariya Sanusi Dantata, also a wealthy business woman in her own right, Aliko was surrounded at birth with privileges. Yet, today, the most consistent testimony of his life is that he is both humble and a self-made man.
As Aliko Dangote celebrates sixty remarkable years of a very extraordinary life, there is no doubt that many people will be celebrating the man for a multitude of reasons. For Sani Dangote, his immediate younger brother, “Aliko is a humble family man, very dedicated and focused. He is passionate about success, and goes goes out of his way to assist others to also succeed”. Femi Otedola, arguably his closest friend, described him as “simply a legend and God-sent to Nigeria. Imagine what the cost of a bag of cement or sugar would be if we had to import all we need. Also imagine the critical role his refinery will play in the economy. Otedola advises that as Dangote clocks 60, he should “take it easy, rest and sleep more”. Our friend, Nduka Obaigbena, sums up the essential Aliko in just two words: “rich but humble”.
Our mutual friend and brother, Samad Rabiu, chairman and founder of BUA Group, had this to say: “Aliko is one of the best friends you can ever have – simple, humble, polite, down-to-earth and fun to be with – provided you don’t venture into his kind of business. He is a blessing to Nigeria and indeed the whole of Africa.”
Perhaps the most touching testimony on Aliko comes from Fatima, his daughter: “he is simple, loving, very hard-working, generous and forgiving. What is generally not known about him is that, despite his serious mien, he is very sensitive and emotional”.
To these moving testimonies I will add that Dangote is reliable and dependable; he is passionate about project Nigeria, which we discuss frequently.
May the Almighty continue to keep him for us, for our country, for Africa and for the rest of the world.
Happy Birthday Mr. President.
• Ibrahim-Imam, an entrepreneur, farmer and politician, was the Presidential Adviser on Senate Matters to President Obasanjo