GUEST COLUMNIST: Ehiedu Iweriebor
Aliko Dangote’s emergence as a major force in Africa’s economic transformation through his expansive investments over the past 10-15 years has necessarily generated multiple responses and have given rise to varied narratives around the person, business style, vision, motivation, strategies and his paths to stupendous business success, product ascendancy and iconic stature in contemporary Africa. The various narratives have varied but they can be roughly divided into two dominant streams that I describe as the Affirmative Africa Narrative or Paradigm and the Pathological Africa Narrative or Paradigm. In the Affirmative Africa Narrative, the accomplishments and development advances of Africa and its people since independence in the context of well-known infrastructural shortages, are studied, appreciated and lauded as important strides on the convoluted and dialectical pathways of development. This is based on the appreciation of concrete social and economic investments and their transformational outcomes, with the understanding that the remaining serious infrastructural deficits are essentially surmountable development challenges. It is premised on the assumption that Africa’s forward motion is the result of Africans self-conscious responsibility to develop itself.
On the other hand, the Pathological Africa Narrative studies, perceives, and presents Africa and Africans as a compound of irredeemable defects and deficits that inhere in the nature of Africa and Africans. In this perspective, Africa is seen essentially as frozen in developmental, moral and spiritual failure. Its infrastructural shortages, severe and minor in areas such as transport, fuel, power, water for example are presented as expressions of Africa’s arrest in a development quagmire from which Africans are inherently incapable of self-advancement without the impetus, direction, action, dogmas or agencies of external forces.
Dangote’s extraordinary business success, autonomous and self-made and especially its powerful impact on Africa’s transformation and its promotion of the renewal of Africans’ faith in self-actuated development and its general liberatory potential, powerfully and effectively challenged and undermined the pathological framework and its narrative of African incapacity. Consequently, and not surprisingly, Dangote’s “unexpected” business success has generated or more accurately revived the long-established colonialist anti-African narratives that began with Africans’ encounter with the West from the era of the slave trade through the age of imperialism and colonialism to the neo-colonial present – this is the Pathological Africa Narrative. In its long evolution over time, this perspective variously labelled Africa as an “uncivilised” space populated by “savages” and “natives” who lived in benighted stasis. These hapless people therefore deserve colonisation to transport them to civilisation and modernity.
In the colonial period, as part of the control mechanism, this Pathological Africa Narrative created, propagated and tried to implant a software of servility and disempowerment in which Africans were presented as lacking the autonomous capacity for self-actuated development without the guidance, diktat, directions and agency of the new colonial masters. In short, the Pathological Africa Narrative of the slave trade and imperialism era was enlarged to incorporate a narrative of Africans’ inherent incapacity for self-propulsion without external or exocentric foreign, preferably Western guidance, impetus, dogmas, agencies and motive-forces.
In the present post-independence, neo-colonial era, this anti-African propaganda and attempt to programme and psychologically incapacitate Africans away from their responsibility for self-development has been undertaken through several tactics. The two most prominent are first, the attempt to elevate Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) (an exocentric force) as the necessary, primary, inevitable, motive force, director and generator of African “development”. The second aspect of the pathologisation of Africa and Africans has been the creation, invocation and propagandist deployment of a massive arsenal of accusatory, libelous and demonising claims such as bribery, corruption, illegality and dodginess as the norms of African social conduct and routine interactions. In this narrative, Africans are portrayed as naturally “corrupt” and that business transactions cannot be properly, legally, successfully and straight-forwardly done without the “bribery and corruption” of state agents (politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats) and state agencies, (ministries, departments and parastatals).
However, since corruption is a universally common occurrence and also a universally denounced social ill, the attempt to present Africa and Africans as the most “corrupt” people in the world is misleading but not accidental. In Africa, Nigeria is routinely labelled and libeled as the most corrupt country that is populated by the most “corrupt” people and most governments in the world. This libelous denunciation of Nigerians is so sweeping that it is almost as if all children born in Nigeria are automatically “corrupt.”
This attempt to capture and entrap Nigeria in the externally created corruption narrative has been eagerly adopted by components of Nigeria’s follower elite and intelligentsia. Like the Nigerian leaders that they routinely and habitually denounce, these elite eagerly accept, borrow and automatically use concepts, dogmas and frameworks fabricated by their Western masters whom they consider their superiors to approach, study, perceive and describe of their societies. In their perspective, these ideologically servile elite quite lazily accept “corruption” as the single most important reason and if not the primary explanation for Nigeria’s poor development record. While “corruption” undoubtedly exists in Nigeria quite pervasively, escalates the cost of public and privates projects and distorts business interactions and transactions; to put it quite bluntly “corruption” is not responsible in any way for Nigeria’s unimpressive development record.
The primary reason for Nigeria’s poor development performance and record was its acceptance, adoption and application of the exocentric development strategy and programmes partly inherited from colonialism and partly renewed, re-enforced and sold by the multilateral imperialist agencies, World Bank and IMF, and happily accepted by Nigeria’s ideologically backward leadership. This dependent Nigerian leadership maintained and used this exocentric economic system that by its basis in the production and export of raw materials and import of manufactured consumer goods, consumer durables and technology inherently and effectively incapacitates a society’s ability for self-actuated development. With this non-developmental exocentric system in place, even if Nigeria is corruption free, or if it exists minimally and even if the country is governed by sinless and uncorrupt imams and pastors, Nigeria cannot achieve successful development.
The corruption narrative serves Nigeria’s historical dominators as a weapon to demonise, control and disorganise Nigerians and misdirect Nigeria from realising its potential as an African global power. The Nigerian follower elite as thoughtless propagators of other people’s views use it as a whip to flog Nigerian leaders as incapable and Nigerians as inherently corrupt people. For both foreign and Nigeria traducers as a site and haven of corruption, it gives them a pedestal for moral posturing and hectoring. The corruption label is also used to tar successful state and private sector investments, to hamstring such efforts and portray these investments as havens of corruption and to enclose them in a cloud of corruption and negation, and in this way attempt to diminish these Nigerian achievements. In this sense, the labelling and routine repetition and habitual reiteration of Nigeria as “corrupt” should be understood for what it is, a massive psychological warfare intended to psychologically disempower the Nigerian elite and its people and put them permanently on the defensive rather than face the challenges of societal development.
This is the context to see and understand the attempt to capture, enclose, reduce and sully the historic significance of Dangote’s grand business success and transformational impact into a narrative of success by perversity: corruption; bribery of state leaders, friendship with politicians and senior government officials; manipulation of state policies; procurement of favoritism, illicit, special incentives and concessions. This is clearly intended to diminish and cast doubt on the sources of Dangote’s entrepreneurial success and tomorally compromise it by giving the impression that he succeeded not through self-effort but because he bribed and corrupted leaders to procure illicit favours, waivers and concessions.
However careful observations and serious analysis of the course of Dangote’s business evolution, outside the pathological Africa framework, will disclose that his great success is the outcome of a complex admixture of ancient and modern Nigerian entrepreneurial heritages that produced a unique African entrepreneur who possesses a rich mix of positive entrepreneurial traits, acumen, gifts and skills. These include determination, titanic effort, steadiness, tenacity, visionary insight, strategic moves, smart choices, business savvy, capacity for resource mobilisation, profitable investments, personal agility and the uncanny ability to identify, mobilise and recruit a strong, experienced and effective high level management cadre and committed work force. Added to the above is an overt patriotic urge to contribute to national and African development. It is the admixture of some of the above traits that made him the successful and powerful economic and social force that he has become.
In terms of the actual processes of economic development in human societies, the corruption narrative apart from its reiteration and repetition of the age-old colonialist anti-African perspectives, is essentially obscurantist and ahistorical. Historically in all processes of development – ancient and modern – the role of the state in providing direct and indirect support has been overt, decisive and central. In modern times, both capitalist and socialist states have played deliberate and active roles in promoting the kind of development that they want their nation-states to accomplish.
The forms of state provided support have varied and include direct public financial investments in the development of catalytic infrastructural, industrial or technology sectors and industries as among socialist states and self-regarding post-independence developmental states. In the capitalist states such support for development often takes the form of tax breaks, general and special research funds; equipment and infrastructure support and sometimes direct investments funds for special national projects and the construction and equipment of specialised institutions to service the private sector; all these are provided by the capitalist states to the private firms and investors.
In this situation, where capitalist firms compete for finite state provided resources and incentives, such firms use highly paid lobbyists with large “war” chest of funds to lobby various politicians or relevant bureaucracies and agencies to influence the outcome of the policies, programmes and laws that will positively influence their investments and profits. In the context of the old capitalist countries, this mode of influence peddling and acquisition of favours by capitalist firms are well established and are never conceived or described as bribery, corruption or influence peddling or the procurement of illicit supports and incentives. However, it is likely that if such lobbyist activities exist and operate in Africa, this would be automatically labelled as corruption. The point is that in all capitalist systems – old and new – it is normal for capitalist firms through lobbying and influencing peddling to try to procure state provided incentives that would enable them to accomplish their objectives of project execution at optimal cost to make maximum profit.
Dangote has not done anything outside this and he has routinely stated that businesses need to be friendly with the political class to enable them get the support they need for the optimal operations of their businesses. There is nothing illegal or immoral about this pragmatic stance. He has never made secret his belief in this approach. If the state in order to achieve certain economic ends provides a regime of common incentives to all businesses, the ability to use the incentives is a function of the objectives, motivations and smartness of the respective business entities to access the incentives.
In short, whatever the state forms that a society may have, capitalist or socialist or post-independence developmental, the role of the state directly or indirectly is central and decisive. Consequently, if a state such as Nigeria in order to advance a specific development objective formulates a policy such as Backward Integration Programme (BIP) that provides special incentives that are commonly available to all operators in the relevant sector, it is the business of the capitalist firms to seek to access and utilise these incentives maximally to their benefit. If one or a few such firms smartly procure and aggressively utilise such incentive-regimes to emerge as ascendant forces or players in their business sectors, they cannot be fairly accused of corruption or seeking special favours– which all entrepreneurs habitually do.
In this light, whatever may be said of Dangote’s access to political leaders and government agencies, he did not stop other business people or companies from accessing the state provided incentive regimes or the political leaders or government agencies. There is also no actual evidence that he received special favours. For example when the Nigerian government in order to encourage cement self-sufficiency rolled out its Backward Integration Programme (BIP) for the cement sector – the incentives was available to all actors in the field. Among the various Nigerian and foreign cement companies, it was only Dangote who seems to have seen the new BIP policy as a national call to self-sufficiency. Consequently, he moved from being a cement importer and cement terminal operator to becoming the largest cement manufacturer who single-handedly made Nigeria self-sufficient in cement production. None of the other cement companies matched his level of commitment to self-sufficiency and the scale of his investments and production capacity that has enabled his company to become the largest producer of cement in Nigeria with over 29 million tonnes production capacity. He is currently investing in two new cement plants in the country in Okpella in Edo State and Itori in Ogun State that will individually produce 6 million tonnes each and collectively produce 12 million tonnes. With this capacity, in the next four years Dangote’s production capacity in Nigeria will rise to 41 million tonnes.
Given the fact that the other cement manufacturers such as Larfarge, Flour Mills and BUA received the same incentives and today they collectively produce less than 10 million tonnes, it seems clear that but for Dangote’s massive investments Nigeria would probably still be importing cement today at the cost of over $3 billion annually. If Dangote has today emerged as the ascendant force in the cement industry and makes robust profits, it is well deserved and not the result of any alleged special concessions or incentive that was not provided to the other manufacturers.
Despite these accomplishments, Dangote has been habitually presented or more accurately he has been accused and libeled as receiving special treatment and exclusive incentives, waivers and concessions. These claims are not commonly supported by publicly available evidence or directly researched works. Instead, the allegations and accusations are based on hear-say, repetitions of the same allegations, unsupported assertions and assumptions that it is must be so, since Nigerians are naturally “corrupt” and all businesses deals are “corruptly” done. Quite commonly, some writers cite statements made by foreign spies that were revealed in WIKI-Leaks, that asserted as if it was a great discovery that Dangote allegedly had received special treatment, concessions and incentives from various political leaders. This Wikileak source is quoted by its users reverentially almost as if its assertion about Dangote is an unquestionable divine truth. These allegations and defamatory claims against Dangote are repeated over and over again from one writer to the next (including scholars) that by dint of this repetition it begins to sound as an established fact.
The same situation applies to the invocation of the newspaper statement of Dangote’s business rival Chairman of BUA Alhaji Rabiu to the effect that Dangote was receiving foreign exchange allocations for business investments abroad, which is neither here nor there. That Dangote is a pan-African businessman is well known. Last year, he commissioned several cement plants in several African states including Cameroun, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia. Quite clearly some of the funds for these investments have come from his Nigerian operations. If Dangote followed the rules of the Central Bank, and received foreign exchange allocations for transactions that are not among the list of items banned from importation, there is clearly nothing illegal about the allocations he received. Furthermore, if Dangote were procuring the foreign exchange underhandedly or illegally, the allocations to his Group would not have been published in newspapers for all to see. In the nature of capitalism, it is part of the game for competitors to attempt to outdo each. Profit seeking is not a moral or ethical game.
Moreover, it should be affirmed that Dangote is not the only Nigerian company that has embarked on pan-African and global expansion over the past 10 years. From 2007, several banks and insurance companies embarked on a pan-African expansion that has resulted in the existence of a Nigerian created pan-African financial service infrastructure that did not exist at the beginning of the 21st century. These companies all received support and allocations from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to establish their presence in these countries. In short, all Nigerian firms not just Dangote that plan to expand outside Nigeria must receive some support including foreign exchange from the CBN. It is also noteworthy furthermore that the foreign operations of Nigerian companies earn profits that are repatriated as foreign exchange to Nigeria. For example, the Dangote Group has mentioned that its cement plants abroad such as those in Senegal and Cameroun have made returns in dollars that came back to Nigeria. Therefore the pan-African investments of Dangote and other Nigerian businesses have to be assessed in terms of their returns to the businesses and Nigeria and not simply accused or libeled as attempts to illegally export foreign exchange.
In addition, the fact is that in all sectors in which Dangote has invested, for example cement, sugar and currently petroleum refining – the Nigerian state has provided generous incentives to all potential investors in pursuit of its various development objectives. However, very few investors compared to Dangote have demonstrated the almost absolute and obsessive commitment to invest massively in these various sectors in order to reap or make superb profits. Apart from profits for his companies, by the scale of investments, it is clear that Dangote is also driven by a desire to contribute to the realisation of the Nigerian state’s objective of promoting economic development through local resources exploitation and valorisation, employment creation, prosperity generation and national self-sufficiency through its BIP.
For example, for nearly two decades the Nigerian state provided generous investment incentives for potential investors in the petroleum refining industry or sub-sector and although over 20 licences were issued to Nigerian and foreign companies, none of the recipients built any new refineries. In fact some Indian and Chinese companies were given oil block allocations as incentives to build refineries. They exploited these oil wells but established no refineries. They duped the captive Nigerian state that is servile to the dogma of FDI and its external promoters.
Dangote then took the decision to invest in the petroleum refining industry and undertook the monumental logistical efforts to mobilise financial resources to the tune of $9 billion to invest in the construction of a petroleum refinery along with a fertiliser plant and petrochemical complex. This large-scale petroleum refinery with a production capacity of 650,000 metric tonnes is one of the largest such plants in the world and will supply all of the nation’s refined petroleum needs with reserves for exportation. Once the plant comes on stream, the Dangote Group will necessarily become the ascendant force in that sub-sector. It would not be surprising if before long, foreign and Nigerian competitors and subscribers to the pathological Africa narrative begin to demonise and accuse Dangote of getting special favours, corruption, market manipulation, monopoly and dominance.
With these massive investments and dedicated drive to achieve national self-sufficiency in areas where he has invested, in societies that are ideologically and psychologically free and not subjected to self-subordination to externally fabricated corruption narratives, Dangote will be upheld and lionised as prized national icon rather than defamed as a serial recipient of illegal favours and concessions.
However, in the broader scheme of global societal evolution in our time and Africa’s march to self-development and progress, whatever defamatory allegations and accusation are levelled against Dangote cannot side-track, erase or diminish his monumental impact. For Nigerian and African beneficiaries of Dangote’s transformational investments, by contributing to African development capacitation, mass industrial production, employment creation, autonomous prosperity generation and the drive to self-sufficiency, Dangote stands as a practical and symbolic refutation of the Pathological Africa Narrative. He is also an exemplar of the positive and empowering outcomes of Africans choice of self-direction against concerted external schemes to incapacitate Africa and retain it as the poor and underdeveloped object of the colonialist philanthropy of pretenders to moral superiority and development omniscience. Dangote is the embodiment of Africa’s liberatory traditions, the Affirmative Africa Narrative and the contemporary vanguard of the renewal of the possibility of resurgent Africa’s self-actuated development.
• Iweriebori is a professor and former Chair, Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, Hunter College, City University of New York, New York