by Akin Osuntokun
Let me continue our dialogue (from last week) with an exhortation of one of Nigeria’s authentic heroes, Aliko Dangote. By the way, he is also my employer and even though I have been on an indefinite leave of absence since 2001, he has not declared me AWOL. I also claim with pride that he is a big brother and a friend. But I have a personal complaint. His bottomless wealth is yet to rub off on me. He began a bold and daring initiative in 1999 to transform from the less tasking and quick returns commodity trading into the fog and turbulence of massive industrialisation. He does not do things in half measures.
The year 1999 was a critical year for all Nigerians, more so the big players. It was a year in which the Nigerian political space was brimming with Yoruba triumphalism. The struggle to reclaim the mandate of President-elect Moshood Abiola had ended with his death and that of his oppressor, General Sani Abacha. Going forward, the Nigerian state adopted and implemented a comprehensive policy of pacifying and compensating the Yoruba. The laws and regulations binding the registration of political parties, were, for instance, waived to accommodate the Yoruba-based party, the Alliance for Democracy (AD). And it was an open secret that the Presidency of Nigeria was theirs for the taking. Recall that the two presidential candidates were two Yoruba chiefs, Olu Falae and Olusegun Obasanjo. The former uniquely held the presidential candidature of two political parties, the AD and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) but the two combined together was no match for Obasanjo’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
This triumphalism impacted critically on Dangote. There were loud murmurs and animus that the concession to cite two or three major factories in the Apapa port-among them the third largest sugar refinery in the world, was a product of Northern nepotism in general and specifically under Abacha. I was, at the material time, one of the blue eyed boys of the Afenifere oligarchy. It was in this capacity and recognition that Dangote recruited me to become the public face of Dangote group. I suspected that this cooptation tempered the nascent Yoruba economic bellicosity against him.
A friend to President Obasanjo was dispatched to enlist the overriding support of their most influential ‘son’ against Dangote. Those who know Obasanjo can very well predict his reaction in such circumstances. He walked the Yoruba emissary out of the villa and assigned him the status of persona non grata from that day on. Typically, Obasanjo then began to take an active interest in the endeavours of Dangote. The interest was soon upgraded to benevolence from which Aliko and Nigeria thrived and blossomed. To the glory of Nigeria, Dangote has become the poster boy of African industrialisation drive and the wealthiest black man to boot. But you have not seen anything yet. While Nigeria is looking at 2015 with trepidation, our man is looking at it with a determination to rise to the very top of Forbes magazine ranking of the wealthiest of the wealthy. If I were you I will not bet against him.
Only a week ago, he brought to public notice the investment of $9.5 billion. The mega investment covers a petrochemical and fertiliser industrial complex and a medium scale petroleum refinery located in the intended Olokola economic conurbation straddling Ondo and Ogun States. It is a platitude to say Nigeria is in dire need of more Dangotes. Yet as betroth Brecht observes, ‘unlucky is that society without a hero, but unhappy is the one that is in need of heroes’. To the eternal credit of President Goodluck Jonathan, he demonstrated a commensurate appreciation of this unique Nigerian by honouring him with the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON).
Is it not ironical that despite the vaunted superior modernisation of the Yoruba, it is a guy from Kano who came to industrialise the South-west-exceedingly more than any Yoruba investor has ever attempted? There was a documentary that recently ran on the DSTV cable TV titled “the makers of America”. The cast comprised five historical figures including JP Morgan and Rockefeller; I cannot now remember the other three but they were all entrepreneurs and high stake investors. As distinguished as many American politicians were, no mention was made of any. This remarkable documentary was only being consistent with what we were taught in our political science classes- that the economy is the substructure, the foundation upon which political superstructure is anchored.
I was recently shouted down and lectured, with much vehemence, that ‘Dangote is the most hated man in Kano’. I was so astounded and provoked that I had to hurriedly leave the environment lest tempers begin to rise beyond control. And how did he acquire this dubious trophy? Nothing more than infantile Kano nationalism which requires him to make investment decisions not based on economic rationality but on the son of the soil sentiments. Had he taken that course, we surely would be telling a totally different kind of story today. The precedent of advanced economies indicates that one of the crucial precursors to their quantum leap on the development ladder was the historical epoch referenced as ‘the age of rationality’. How rational would it be for him to ignore the comparative advantage of the factors of production including but not limited to coastal accessibility; proximity of raw materials and market that Lagos presented and preferred Kano as investment destination.
No doubt, there is a lot of anger in the ‘North’ over the Nigerian presidency. But it is a misplaced emotion. Obasanjo was president for eight years yet the road leading to Abeokuta through Otta has for long been abandoned and neglected. He patronised Dangote a lot (and could not care less from which corner of Nigeria he hails from) as any enlightened Nigerian leader should do. His presidential court was populated a lot more by smart guys and gals who do not answer to Yoruba names. The value of Obasanjo’s Presidency for the Yoruba was little else than symbolic. He often told us that rather than indulge in nepotism manoeuvre to favour his ethnic kin what he would do was to create a level playing field and anticipate that the Yoruba would do well given their relative competitiveness.
It has been said a lot by my friends and brothers from the North that the many years of the incumbency of northerners in (in and out of uniform) power at the centre has seldom reflected in any positive and advantageous impact on the region. For substantial parts of the South, hankering for this office is mostly a matter of ego and mainly symbolic; to be assured that all Nigerians are equal citizens. The mentality of indispensable ambition for presidential office should not be a received wisdom for our generation and others down the line.
This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of General Mohammadu Buhari. More than any other leader from the North, he has encouraged this parochial obsession with the office of the President; of We vs Them. He has contested for this office three times consecutively yet, we do not see in him any familiarity with any other region than the Muslim North. As the Boko Haram crisis escalated, Buhari was importuned several times to mediate and facilitate a dialogue with the insurgents. Every such entreaty was angrily rebuffed by him. He would rather focus on deriding Jonathan for his lack of capacity to secure the nation. Yet when the president finally said enough was enough and backed the tough talk with military siege on the insurgents, it was Buhari who protested that the Boko Haram were being treated unfairly in contrast to the generous panhandling of the Niger Delta militants.
Amongst all who has had the privilege of holding the highest office in the land particularly from the north, it took Obasanjo from Abeokuta to brave the odds and go to Maiduguri to dare the lion in its den-with a mission to tame rather than kill the lion. To underscore the precarious nature of this mission, the senior brother of the dead Boko Haram leader who hosted Obasanjo was gunned down the following day. I once suggested to former military President Ibrahim Babangida-(whose easy, pleasant and likable personality I still could not reconcile with his adventurous military career) to convene a mini national summit of the younger generation of Nigerians to encourage bonding and brotherliness across the cleavages. He readily agreed but the idea ultimately faltered resulting from errors of commission and omission of both of us. However, with or without me, I believe it was an initiative he should have carried forward
For the record, I should reiterate the point that I have a fairly close relationship with IBB and I admire General Yakubu Gowon and President Shehu Shagari for steadfastly standing above any partisan fray. I cannot say the same for President Obasanjo. Yes, he is an activist by nature but he could sufficiently exercise this predilection in international engagements rather than the lesemajeste of partisanship within and outside of PDP.
There is an Islamic admonition which enjoins that ‘power is best given to him who does not crave it’. I might include the qualification ‘to him who does not need it’. If there is one Nigerian who does not need the presidential toga that person is AlikoDangote . He has absolutely no need to neither fiddle with the public till nor allow anyone else to do so. He is incomparably driven and energetic to pull Nigeria up by the collar. He can be unreservedly and honestly characterised as a detribalised Nigerian. The Nigerian economy will receive from him the best nurture we can ever hope for. With him we would be putting our best foot forward and I’m fairly confident that President Jonathan will be enormously happy to have him as successor whenever he makes that determination. 2015? 2019?
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Akin Osuntokun