Tolu Ogunlesi profiles Aliko Dangote: Rich is but the least of it (Y!/ Person of the Year 2013 Nominee)

by Tolu Ogunlesi

Aliko Dangote
Aliko Dangote

This has been a fantastic year for Aliko Dangote. He appeared on the Forbes Billionaires List for the sixth year in a row, and six times richer than when he made his 2008 debut.

His current valuation, at $20 billion (take that as a very conservative estimate), makes him Africa’s richest man, and 43rd richest in the world.

When you consider that he’s currently building cement factories in more than a dozen African countries, and is about to start building a refinery that could hand him a monopoly on one of the world’s biggest markets, you realise that there’s potentially no limit to what he could be worth in a matter of years.

Most fascinating about the Dangote story is how he stepped up from being just one of Nigeria’s many billionaires (Nigeria has never been short of stupendously wealthy businessmen) to become the richest black man in the world. Are you, like me, curious about what the pivotal moment – if any – was?

The basic facts of his life and business are by now well known (excluding, of course, the details of his family life: the wives, the children).

He was born into money, and money-making. In the 1950s his maternal grandfather, a produce merchant, was touted as the richest man in West Africa.  In the late 1970s Dangote got hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up loans from his Uncle.

He’s a workaholic, and frightfully ambitious; one of those businessmen who set their sights on conquering everything in sight. His company is the largest cement producer in Africa. His sugar factory is the second largest in the world. The refinery he wants to build will be the biggest in Africa.

He started out trading cement, in 1970s Nigeria, when an oil boom fuelled a construction frenzy. He expanded rapidly, so that by the 1990s he was doing business in textiles, property, shipping, mining, oil, manufacturing, haulage and banking.

He takes being close to governments very seriously (he credits that stance to advice from his grandfather), and never hesitates to take full advantage of his closeness to government to advance his business interests (he will readily acknowledge this).

Somewhere along the line (mid-1990s) he seems to have realised the need to move from trading to manufacturing (it seems to me this was that pivotal moment). Shortly after this came the chance to realize the dream. The civilian administration of Olusegun Obasanjo came into office in 1999, after sixteen years of disastrous military rule, desperate to reform Nigeria’s economy, primarily through the privatisation of state-owned assets. With his pedigree, and his effortless generosity to the ruling Peoples Democratic Party – Dangote wasted no time becoming the largest donor to the party – it was not difficult for him to win the bids for some of the most prized of those state assets, producing everything from sugar and salt to cement and steel.

The result is that Dangote is today shorthand for capitalist success in emerging markets. Someday, one imagines, a dictionary will formalise that with an entry. And we will speak about businessmen “pulling a Dangote” everywhere from North Korea to South Sudan.

As Dangote’s wealth and power multiply, I’m curious to see if the recurring allegations of questionable business practices will manage to keep up and make a dent on what has until now been an unprecedented Nigerian and African success story.

The consensus amongst critics – and this exists mostly in whisperings in business circles; you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of business people willing to complain publicly – seems to be that he is a ruthless businessman, a pathological non-taker of prisoners, driven solely by a rabid quest to dominate. It will not be difficult to find any number of self-appointed guides willing to take you on a tour of the ‘We Tried To Take Dangote On’ cemetery.

Dangote doesn’t shy away from dismissing the criticism; he told Business Week early in 2013: “Competitors will say anything.”

But the murmurings won’t go away.

My feeling is that the future of the Dangote empire is likely to be shaped significantly by this angst of the wounded and the bloodied, and their sympathisers.

Will these voices grow louder, and eventually trigger an attempt to decisively curb the extent of what is seen as his penchant for destructive monopoly? Or will they fade away in the face of his infinitely expanding success? Will the increased regulatory scrutiny that listing on the London Stock Exchange brings make the empire vulnerable?

EDITORIAL: The Y!/ Person of the Year 2013 is… Jason Njoku

For now, of course, anything but endless growth seems unlikely. His capacity to create jobs on a scale that makes for fantastic news headlines has earned him the worship of Nigeria’s governments; officials are forever making boasts predicated on his ability to make magic happen. His capacity for playing his politics very smartly (he’s got powerful connections across party lines) makes it unlikely he will ever fall out of favour to such an extent as could ruin him. And the impressively diversified – and rapidly internationalising – portfolio will make it even harder to target him.

This much we can bet on: not for him the fates of Eike Batista and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, fellow emerging markets moguls who were once higher up on the Forbes List than he currently is, but who lost all, and suddenly too.

For now the only person who can curb Dangote, it seems, is Dangote himself.

Ogunlesi is a two-time winner of the CNN African Journalist Award and a 2013 Rockerfeller Bellagio Fellow

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