Aliko Dangote: Africa’s humble King of Cement

Aliko Dangote © Getty Images

An audacious project to build a vast oil refinery in Nigeria could be the crowning achievement of African tycoon Aliko Dangote’s already impressive CV, reports Jane Lewis.

“Many of today’s billionaires spin their fortunes from intangibles” such as technology or banking, says David Pilling in the Financial Times. Africa’s richest man has made his money from “more prosaic things” – above all, cement. Now Aliko Dangote, 61, is working on his most ambitious project yet. His planned $12bn oil refinery, built on swampland outside Lagos, is “so big, so audacious and so potentially transformative” that it could see him go down in history as Africa’s “John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon combined”.

A big boon for Nigeria

For years Nigeria has exported all its oil as crude, then imported refined petrol, creating a “lucrative racket for middlemen”. Dangote’s refinery would put an end to that. The project is bound to make him enemies (Dangote says he’s hitherto avoided the oil industry because of its “skulduggery”), but he’s already built a port and roads to handle the equipment and power plants to run the refinery.
As well as petrol, the plant will pump out all the plastic Nigeria needs, “plus three million tonnes of fertiliser a year”.

To some Nigerians, Dangote’s move to corner oil refining is a step too far. His eponymous group already boasts a cement empire across much of Africa. In Nigeria it is also “a market leader” for “consumer products ranging from fruit juice and instant noodles to salt, sugar and flour”, says The Guardian. His enemies claim he has used his political clout to block rivals. But he has also won praise “for investing in countries that others have avoided” and for spending “significantly on education, health and social causes”.

Dangote was born in Kano in northern Nigeria. His maternal grandfather, Alhassan Dantata, was a kola nut trader who became West Africa’s richest man. He “wasted no time starting his own empire”, says the Evening Standard. After studying business at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Dangote moved to Lagos and in 1978 founded his own firm with a $3,000 loan from his uncle. By 1990 he’d built the biggest trading outfit in the region on the back of its insatiable demand for cement. Cement remains the driving force of the group – the largest company on the Lagos stock exchange – accounting for 80% of turnover in 2015. Forbes this year put Dangote’s fortune at $12.2bn, making him the richest African on its rich list for the seventh year running.

Integrity and charm

In person, the “King of Cement” is “charm itself”, projecting “integrity and humility, even piety”, says the FT. The “networker extraordinaire” counts Tony Blair among his close friends. “Like Bill Clinton, he remembers your name; like Al Capone, he’s got your number.” Last year, the Nigerian news service NAIJ.com reported that the People’s Democratic Party had approached him to run for president in 2019, but Dangote denies any political ambitions. Two main goals grip him: to float his group in London, and to buy Arsenal football club.

After a setback following Nigeria’s plunge into recession in 2016, plans for a London share sale have been “revived”, says Bloomberg: Dangote has already appointed independent directors, including Blair’s wife Cherie. But his dream of buying Arsenal was hit when US sports tycoon Stan Kroenke took the club private. Yet Dangote seems undettered. “I love Arsenal and I will definitely go for it.”
As with so many of his other ambitions, “you wouldn’t bet against him”.