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Olusegun Adeniyi: Aliko Dangote And Workers’ Day

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Courtesy of Mallam Abba Kyari, I am currently reading “Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century”, written by Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics. Recently translated from French into English by Arthur Goldhammer and published by Harvard University Press, Piketty’s much acclaimed work seeks a better understanding of the dynamics of inequalities in the world we live in and has, not surprisingly, turned the author into an international celebrity.

Based on the findings of a research in which income distribution and wealth patterns were tracked across centuries, Piketty’s thesis is not only that the rich are getting richer but that they are also appropriating to themselves more political power. Put starkly, members of the “one percent” club that controls 85 percent of the wealth of the world have also acquired sufficient influence to shape that world according to their own vision in which only the ends justify the means.

Piketty’s book provides a window for interrogating our society, especially given the challenge of unemployment and wealth creation in our country and I recommend it to our policy makers as they prepare to host next week in Abuja the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa (WEFA) with the theme “Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs”. The notion of some unfettered markets and a tide that lifts all boats have proved to be self-deception and governments, all over the world, are seeking more equitable methods to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But that is an issue for another day.

Against the background that the biggest employer of labour in our country (maybe even on the continent) outside government and the richest man in Africa has become the rave of the moment, it may be fitting to use the occasion of today (Workers’ Day) to examine his contribution to our society. I am talking about Alhaji Aliko Dangote who in the estimation of TIME magazine is “one of the most influential 100 people in the world” and has also been listed as number 23 among the 25 most accomplished businessmen in the world by CNBC. “They have disrupted industries, sparked change and exercised an influence far beyond their own companies,” the CNBC said, adding that “the 25 men and women listed below—from different parts of the world and across different industries—have, for better or worse, been the rebels, icons and leaders in the vanguard of that change.”

I am very much aware that Dangote is a hot potato issue, and understandably too, given his enormous wealth in a society of predominantly poor people. I am also aware that the common narrative, especially by his critics, is that Dangote is a creation of the Nigerian government.  Such notion is not without foundation when you look at the quantum of his wealth and how close he has been to the seat of power, especially in the last two decades.  However, such a simplistic way of looking at the Dangote phenomenon is rather lazy. For me, the Dangote story can be explained within the context of the Biblical parable of talents as told by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 25: 14-30 which centred on a certain rich man who, before embarking on a journey, entrusted his assets to three of his servants. To one servant was given five talents; another two talents; and the last servant was given one talent. The master in this parable obviously knew that his servants did not have equal abilities but the way each deployed the asset and the eventual outcome is a study in faithfulness and industry.
The lesson of the parable, as one commentator put it, is that while we all begin from different starting points in life, it is not always what we are given that determines our success or failure but rather how we deploy such talents. The point is that if we take the Nigerian rentier state as the distributor of talents, and we agree that Dangote started off with five talents,  the fact also remains that there are several others who received one “talent” each and I am not even talking of those who (by virtue of holding public offices), gave themselves multiple ill-gotten “talents”. The challenge of our country is that majority of those people (and they are probably in hundreds of thousands) “buried” their own talents in pursuit of personal pleasure without adding any value to themselves or our society. By investing his own “talents” very wisely and taking calculated risks, Dangote has done good for himself and our society and that then explains why he has moved from making money to creating wealth. Besides, the symbolism of Dangote as Africa’s response to the rise of wealth ambassadors in different regions of the world should ordinarily compel a feeling of pride in us as Nigerians.

However, before I continue, I need to make a disclosure because to the extent that proximity to a person can distort one’s vision or colour perception, I plead guilty to any charge of bias. I am close enough to Dangote for him to have attended the naming ceremony of my son in October 2003 (that is almost 11 years ago), at a time I was just a reporter. That of course caused problems for me at Abraham Adesanya Millennium Estate, Ajah in Lagos as many residents began to seek the kind of favour I had no means to grant. Yet another side to Dangote is that when a few weeks ago I wanted to lean on our relationship for the Loyola Jesuit College’s  “60 Angels Memorial Staff Residence”, all I got was a very nice reply to my email with the conclusion: “Regretfully, due to other conflicting commitments, I will be unable to honour the invitation. On the request for donations, it has come after closing our 2014 annual budget for such contributions, but I will keep it in view.”

The message from that is simple: because he works very hard for his money, Dangote is careful in how he dispenses it though the less charitable would say he is not generous enough with his stupendous wealth. The other way to look at it, however, is that Dangote has moved from being a one-man business where the owner can just be dashing out money as he wishes into a corporate institution with governance structure. That is probably why he has succeeded where most Nigerians before him have failed with family businesses that have not gone beyond a generation. With the way he has built and structured his own business, the Dangote group is most likely going to last generations.
However, there is always this glib talk by our political office holders and public commentators that we need more “Dangotes in Nigeria” to grow the economy and provide jobs for our teeming population. I don’t think there is any reflection to such proposition. What I think we need is not so much big businesses like Dangote’s, especially in this era where question marks are being raised about unbridled capitalism, but rather the can-do and enterprising spirit of Dangote among young entrepreneurs. The challenge of our country is that people are not creating jobs, they are just accumulating money (mostly ill-gotten) and that is why we have the largest assemblage of private jets in Africa and we are now competing with Russia as the champagne consumption headquarters of the world.

When economists say that the private sector is the engine of growth for an economy, they are talking in terms of job (and by implication, wealth) creation. But the jobs that lift a society and ensure a measure of shared prosperity are not necessarily the ones created by the big businesses but rather the small ones. For instance, according to figures from the United States Census Board, businesses with 10,000 employees or more like Dangote’s are only 941 in their country and they employ 33 million people. In contrast, small businesses which employ fewer than 500 people account for more than 120 million jobs (over 50 percent of the working population) and have generated 85 percent of the net jobs since 1995. What that means in effect is that our policy makers should begin to create the incentives for our young people to come up with their own businesses rather than this futile obsession about creating more of Dangote who himself started small.

The point I am making is that the value of Dangote is not in the quantum of his wealth but rather in the discipline with which he built his business. The problem that I see, however, is that most of our young businessmen have inculcated the wrong values as only few have learnt the virtues of sacrifice and humility and that is where Dangote is different. I am close enough to know how frugal Dangote is when it comes to managing his wealth and his abhorrence for waste and any display of ostentation. At a time he could afford and actually had a private Jet (being used mostly for charter services), Dangote was still flying commercial within the country and in April 2005, I attended his 48th birthday picnic at Alpha beach in Lagos which was organised by his staff and could experience first-hand the kind of camaraderie you don’t see between employer and employees in our country.

The Dangote story is all the more remarkable when you realise he started as a commodity trader before venturing into the more risky terrain of manufacturing. In 2004, I was at his $798 Million (about a N110 billion) Obajana Cement project in Kogi State at a time it was still under construction. Described by the World Bank as the biggest of such enterprise in sub-Sahara Africa at the time (with associated facilities some of which include a 135 Mega Watts captive power plant, an earth dam and a 90-kilometer gas pipeline from Ajaokuta to Obajana), I recall asking Dangote how much each of the components cost and he had the answers at his finger tips. When I marvelled at how he knew so much about everything, he replied that he took time out to study the industry, down to the minute technical details. “You think I would pump my money into what I know nothing about so that some oyinbo men would come and bamboozle me to take my money away?” he asked. Such attention to details is not common with many of our businessmen.
All said, Dangote has paid his dues and he deserves all the accolades and recognitions he is getting from all over the world. But I worry that the health and prospects of our national economy is being increasingly measured in terms of the ability to create the likes of Dangote rather than in helping small entrepreneurs to actualise their potentials. What is being missed is that the real essence of the public sector is to help the rise of as many local private capital enclaves. That way, jobs are created and value is added to the national economy. It is within that context that Dangote derives his importance.
However, the more grave challenge in the rise of Dangote as Africa’s richest man is in the very nature of his local roots. He hails from Kano State in the north, a region that is tragically the home to the poorest of Nigeria’s mostly impoverished 170 million odd population despite the fact that it has produced a succession of military leaders. What that does is to place a special burden on Dangote who has become a role model for the entrepreneurial success that is possible for every Nigerian that works hard, regardless of tribe or tongue. Therefore, as critical stakeholders work towards bringing peace and prosperity to the North, it is important for Dangote to lead the charge as a strong catalyst for positive social change.
All For Chibok Girls!
With the late Sonny Okosun’s 1983 album “Which Way Nigeria?” blaring out yesterday afternoon as the clouds began to gather, some women and a few men clustered around the Unity Fountain in Abuja to commence the peaceful protest over the abduction (on April 14 this year) of over 200 female students from Government Secondary School, Chibok in Borno State.

Sporting red T-Shirts, the women who had mobilized under the auspices of “Women for Justice and Peace” were clearly outnumbered by the police and other security agents that were deployed ahead of the protest. But that did nothing to dampen the resolve of the women and the few men who defied the heavy torrents to send a message of solidarity with the Chibok women whose children are still unaccounted for. And in a commendable show of leadership, Senate President David Mark, House of Representatives Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal and Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha also defied the rain to receive and address them.

Some of the people who were at the match included Mrs Maryam Uwais, Mrs Chammaine Pereira, Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi; Mr Femi Falana (SAN); Funmilayo Awomolo (SAN); Mrs Oby Ezekwesili; Mrs Saadatu Abdullahi Ibrahim; Mrs Sharon Ikeazor; Mallam Bashir Ibrahim Yusuf; Hajia Halitta Aliyu; Mrs Rakiya Sanusi and Mrs Bintu el-Rufai. There were also Mrs. Maryam Sanusi; Mrs Asia el-Rufai; Mr. Waziri Adio; Dr Hussein Abdu;  Dr. Otive Igbuzor; Mr. Hubert Shaiyen; Dr. Kole Shettima; Dr. Jibo ibrahim; Mrs. Titi Atiku (wife of former VP); Mrs Kolo Kingibe; Mrs Ireti Kingibe; Mrs. Saudatu Mahdi; Hajia Hadiza Bala Usman; Hajia Aisha Ismail; Mrs Hauwa Shekarau; Hajia Asmau Joda; Mrs Amina Omoti and Yemi Adamolekun. There were also several others.

In their prepared statement titled “A Living Nightmare: Please Find Our Daughters”, the group had stated: “The reading from Chibok is that all of us, including the military and security personnel, are at risk of being consumed by the aggression of those who have ambushed our peace and prosperity…We speak out today and will do so every day until these girls are all accounted for. As mothers, fathers and siblings we call for the urgent and complete end to the politicization of the insecurity in Nigeria. Our pain and solution are collective.”

In her short remark shortly before they set out from the Unity Fountain, Ezekwesili had stated that what they were doing was to demonstrate to the hurting mothers of Chibok that neither they nor their abducted daughters would be abandoned. But the real message of yesterday was that Nigerians are standing together as we seek to root out terrorism in all its manifestations from our land. Fortunately, it was a message that resonated with the leadership of the National Assembly.

However, while the executive may be doing so much behind the scene to recover those girls, its inability to connect with the people can only be counter-productive. Yet, as being demonstrated across Europe today with something as banal as eating banana in the bid to root out racism from the game of football, symbolism indeed matters.

I am sure people who don’t watch football may not be following the story but here is it: In the course of a match between Barcelona and Villareal last weekend in Spain, Dani Alves, a Brazilian footballer who plays for Barca, was about to take a corner when a banana was thrown into the pitch in front of him. In response to the racist taunt, Alves nonchalantly picked up the banana, peeled it and took a bite before continuing with the game. That has now become a powerful message against racism as the fad of eating banana catches on globally with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi joining the national team coach Cesare Prandelli to publicly eat banana as a message of solidarity with Alves and all black footballers.

What that has demonstrated is the power of symbolism which, unfortunately is lost on many of our political leaders. Yesterday, as Abuja women (assisted by some men) matched for the Chibok girls in the rain, I could not but wonder how it would be if our female politicians and office holders, many of whom are themselves mothers, had joined in the protest. That would have sent a very powerful message to the grieving mothers in Chibok that they are not alone. I commend Mark, Tambuwal, Ihedioha and the women of Abuja who yesterday defied the rain. May that spirit endure and may our captured daughters in Chibok return home soon.

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The Verdict  By Olusegun Adeniyi is culled from Thisday Newspapers; olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

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