“I’m not in it for the money. No, no,” he says. “I like to run a business that’s successful … I’m a very creative person.” He says he eschews conspicuous consumption.
“I have a very simple life.”
Up to a point. Like many billionaires, he owns a yacht as well as large properties in Ikoyi, a leafy Lagos suburb, and neighbouring Victoria Island, home to Africa’s most expensive real estate. Then there’s the private jet, which he says he bought to avoid hangers-on who used to book first-class tickets on the same flight as him.
Still, by the standards of Nigeria’s champagne-swigging, sports car-collecting rich, he’s not that extravagant.
Old friend Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives, remembers a business dinner at the palm-fringed Eko Hotel in the city. When he and Mr. Dangote left in Mr. Dangote’s black Mercedes, hotel staff charged 5,000-naira ($32) for parking – excessive, but peanuts for a man of Mr. Dangote’s wealth. Indignant at the attempted rip-off, the cement king negotiated it down to 1,000-naira.
“He spent a good few minutes doing it. I said to him: ‘Let’s just go. Our time is more valuable than a few thousand naira.’ But he wouldn’t let it go,” Mr. Rewane said of the tycoon. “He smiled afterward. He was so happy he’d got a good deal.”
Mr. Dangote is not always so frugal.
“He dreams big, some might say too big. In 2004-5 we owed 80-billion naira (about $500-million),” recalled Uzo Nwankwo, a fund manager who was Dangote Cement’s executive director of corporate finance from 2005 to 2007. “The banks were nervous, but they couldn’t stop the money. We were too big to fail.”
Mr. Dangote’s success has not been without controversy. In a 2007 diplomatic cable that ended up last year on the WikiLeaks website, the then U.S. Consul General in Lagos, Brian Browne, wrote: “To detractors, he is a predator using connections in a corrupt political economy to tilt the playing field in his favour.”
Critics say Mr. Dangote owes as much to political favours as business acumen. His fortunes blossomed when his close friend Olusegun Obasanjo became president in 1999, Mr. Browne wrote in the cable.
Mr. Browne could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Obasanjo – whose 1999 election ended years of kleptocratic military dictatorship – gave Mr. Dangote exclusive import rights to cement, sugar and rice, the cable suggests, in return for Mr. Dangote’s support, including funding Mr. Obasanjo’s re-election campaign in 2003.
“It is no coincidence that many products Nigeria’s import ban lists are items in which Dangote has major interests,” Mr. Browne wrote. “He has had success in blocking trade and investment that might compete with his enterprises.” He concluded that Mr. Dangote is “harmful to Nigeria’s interests.”
Mr. Dangote frowned, visibly annoyed, when Reuters read him the cable during an interview. Building relationships with presidents is a normal part of being a business leader, he said, denying he had used connections to stifle competition.
“We’ve been close to almost all the presidents that have passed,” he said, naming military dictators Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and the notorious Sani Abacha as examples. But, he insists, “we have never taken advantage ... and we were not even always treated fairly.”
These days, Mr. Dangote’s relationship with presidential power has become symbiotic: Presidents need to court him too.
He is on President Goodluck Jonathan’s economic management team and the government’s job creation committee, which effectively enables him to help shape trade and economic policy. Mr. Jonathan, who last year awarded Mr. Dangote Nigeria’s second-highest honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, attended a ceremony for the opening of a production line at the Obajana plant in June.
When asked if he would run for president, Mr. Dangote is adamant: “Never, never. I don’t want to go beyond my life ambition … Most of the presidents, I’ve been giving them advice, whether they solicit it or not. So far they always listen to me. If I have an idea, I can actualize it through our political leaders.”
But Mr. Dangote’s methods don’t just involve political connections. One tactic for protecting his virtual monopolies is the use of temporary price drops – lawful in Nigeria where anti-trust legislation is scant.