By Chidi Amuta
I enter this concern because of late, Mr. Dangote has come under some threatening exposure, the fullest implications of which might not be obvious to him at this point. The major external threat has predictably come from the dark coven of the Nigerian political jungle. Some political marksmen flew the dangerous kite that the PDP (yes, the PDP!) had empanelled a task force to woo Dangote into flying its flag in the 2019 presidential contest against president Buhari or whoever else becomes the APC candidate. Mr. Dangote has since debunked the ‘fake news’, stoutly insisting that he has no interest in politics let alone flying any party’s flag. But it does not end there. The smell of politics, once unleashed, lingers on especially on the apparels of big money men. The lethal embrace of politics has a way of destroying everything it comes into contact with.
But it should not. Ordinarily, every political party is at liberty to scout for members from among Nigerians. Enlightened group interest dictates that parties target citizens whose presence in their fold would not only add value but could perhaps enhance their electoral chances. In the corollary, the right of a citizen Dangote to subscribe to a party of his choice is among his most fundamental rights as a member of a free society. But Mr. Dangote is no ordinary citizen. He is primarily a businessman, a tycoon of outlandish proportions. With a net worth variously estimated in excess of $12 billion, he is who is arguably richer than 35 of our 36 states and 50% of African sovereign states. He is also richer than any every individual that has contested for the presidency of the United States of America. Therefore, his remotest linkage with anything political in his fractious home country, Nigeria, is bound to have tectonic reverberations. It is therefore safer to assume that the PDP was merely deploying the scare value of the Dangote name to frighten the bumbling APC incumbency.
Above this scare mongering though is the tricky relationship between big money and political power across time. Nothing frightens men of power than the gaze of a big money man on the soapbox. The reason is simple: the moneyman is not content with standing on the soapbox to make a political point. He wants to stand on it, make his point and in fact buy the soapbox and take it home. It is easier for a man of power to gatecrash into the league of billionaires (don’t ask me how!) than for the big money man to muzzle his way into the presidential mansion.
Most times, the wealthy go into active contest for political power at the apex for three reasons, two lavishly canvassed and one usually implied or at best nuanced. The unstated reason is the enlightened self-interest to make some more money and to protect what they already have. The usually announced reasons include a desire to fix public affairs with the same magic wand that has led to his business and financial success. Moreover, the moneyman is eager to transform every miserable life out there into a mirror image of his rags to riches fable. This lie sells easily.
For a cocktail of reasons, however, businessmen make very disastrous presidents and miserable prime ministers. In the US, a recent survey of the ranking of all past presidents by the American Political Science Association revealed that those with background in business ranked among the bottom third. Three of them were kicked out of the White House after only one term (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and the senior George Bush). On the contrary, those with no business background have excelled and bagged two terms each (Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama). Harry Truman who is usually celebrated as a remarkable president was a failed businessman. Recent history showcases two unsettling examples: Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump who is furiously marching along the path of infamy.
In autocratic dispensations and half-hearted democracies, the contest between entrenched political leaders and aspirant businessmen/politicians is usually nasty. The reason is simple: prevailing political overlords, like jealous wives, are vicious adversaries who brook no challenge and take no prisoners. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a classic instance. Some of the oligarchs who bought off state assets in Russia’s dodgy privatization thought they could consolidate their sudden wealth by seeking political power. That aspiration confronted Mr. Putin and his surrogates. He either turned a blind eye when they got assassinated or chased them into exile in Europe followed by goons with vials of radioactive poison.
In the specific case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who founded Open Russia, a political voluntary organisation, series of trumped-up charges of tax evasion and other financial crimes led to a humiliating kangaroo public trial of the czar of Yukos Oil. He was convicted and jailed in the icy Siberian wilderness for 10 years. Thereafter, he got Putin’s pardon after a negotiated forfeiture of his fortune, initially estimated at $8 billion, down to a paltry $500 million in net worth including a cash allowance of $150 million. He now lives in exile in Switzerland.
Similarly, Bill Browder (author of Red Notice), the American born British investment mogul became the biggest foreign investor in the Russian stock market. Putin saw his political views and closeness to Washington as a mortal threat and quickly ran him out of town.
The failure is not inherent in business or businessmen. It is just that the ways, means and ends of politics and those of business are not the same. Business is mostly about profit and it only does some public good according to the rules of the market place. Moreover, result in business is captured in a balance sheet. But result in political leadership is etched in the minds and lives of the people. A businessman in power who aims at balance sheet-type outcomes may be booed out of office.
Like all good business people, Dangote must have somehow needed the untidy embrace of politics to get to where he is. Admirably, he has played the politics of business (or the business of politics?) very well. From a distance, I sense that he has read the Jewish rulebook in American politics very well. It simply says in no written form: support both Republican and Democratic candidates but make sure you are present at every inauguration. The permanent interests are obvious: security of the Jewish interest in the strategic highpoints of American business and, inevitably, the security of the state of Israel.
In the specific instance of Mr. Dangote and his Nigerian political friends, he should keep them well within view and reach without getting immersed in their dark craft. The temptation to look back at the experience of M.K.O Abiola is always present. Successful by all measures in his line of business back then, Chief Abiola was the friend of the most powerful and influential military officers as well as a card-carrying member of the NPN. The politicians and some military officers needed his money but despised his guts and larger than life image. When the politicians shortchanged him, he found comfort in the company of the succeeding military oligarchy. Subsequently, he sought the presidency on the platform of the SDP created by the military. By some cruel irony, Nigerian politics, now in uniform and jackboots, caught up with him. The rest is history. The lesson: big money and big political power in the hands of any one man do not travel well together.
But I suggest Dangote begins to see his political party and potentially huge political power differently. His party members are really the millions who hold stocks in his many companies. They include all those who are employed and will be employed in that huge refinery under construction in Lagos; the numerous cement factories, salt and sugar plants, flour mills, tomato factories, farms and other investments that he is associated with all over the country. Every family whose bread winner depends on a Dangote company, those of us who earn dividends from investing in Dangote stocks, truck drivers who make a living distributing the products of his factories, inhabitants of homes that yesterday had no electricity but are today lit up by excess power generated from some of his manufacturing plants etc. etc. These are the popular infrastructure of Mr. Dangote’s fledgling social and political empire.
That is not all. Mr. Dangote’s investment pattern has a strategic edge to it. A few years down the road, Mr. Dangote will control our access to fuel, to electricity, to cement for our buildings and core infrastructure and to the kind of processed food (sugar, bread, spaghetti, rice etc.) that most of our people need to trudge on. The football loving masses that like Arsenal may need to love it more if and when Dangote buys the club. When that hour comes, Dangote will not need to join anyone’s party. He will only nod to seekers of power who can protect and defend his alternative federal republic of Nigeria.
Beyond the political sphere, I fear that the private and personal threat to Dangote’s pre-eminence may be coming from the man himself. I hardly know him but we have met at a number of social engagements in Lagos. We also share a handful of mutual friends. My instant judgment is that he is unassuming, very humble, almost self-effacing, devoid of pomposity and clearly unpretentious. No noisy hooligans in his entourage or the usual noisy entry that announces the arrival of inconsequential entities around here. But in recent times, the sheer number of social engagements: weddings, naming ceremonies, movie private pre-viewings, burials, outing ceremonies that feature Dangote has become quite copious for the Chief executive of a humungous multi national business empire. This volume of social engagements can be quite exhausting and even distractive given the enormity and strategic import of projects that Mr. Dangote has embarked upon both in Nigeria and all over Africa.
Only Mr. Dangote can balance this precarious equation. He must sit down and decide on the right mix of his public and private schedules that will not erode his ultimate economic and political gravitas. His business empire has assumed a logic and life of its own. Mr. Dangote now has the unenviable task of losing his individuality to the logic of the market. His life is no longer his; he is now ours. It matters to each of us and to the banking system if Dangote has a cold. So, he now has to find meaning as both private citizen and economic sovereign.
• Dr. Chidi Amuta, a member of Thisday Editorial Board, is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos