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His Name Is Aliko Dangote

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A decade ago most people outside Nigeria would have said, "Aliko who?"

Not anymore. In 2008 he became the first Nigerian to make it onto Forbes' rich list. In 2011 the magazine disclosed: "The Nigerian businessman's fortune surged 557 percent in the past year, making him the world's biggest gainer in percentage terms and Africa's richest individual for the first time." (According to Forbes, as of March 2012 he was the second richest black man in the world, having recently been displaced by Saudi/Ethiopian Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi)

Now everyone else is paying attention.

Let's start with the fascinating detail in this new biography (it is unclear how many others exist out there) by Chicago-based Nigerian journalist Moshood Fayemiwo and his American partner Margie Neal -- the "stuff I bet you didn't know about Aliko" bit.

Islam permits him to be polygamous, but he is a serial monogamist -- by choice. He has been married to four women, and has sired fifteen children. His first wife, to whom he got married on May 27, 1977 -- he was 20 years old -- was "specially chosen for him by a consensus of his mother and other uncles."

Around that same time he left Kano, where he was born, and where his maternal family is one of the richest and most prominent, for Lagos, then Nigeria's Federal Capital, and seat of government.

He has been heartbroken. His attempt to marry a daughter of former President Yar'Adua failed -- she turned him down, and then went on to marry a state Governor. Since 1983 he has experienced three "near-fatal" plane accidents. A younger brother died in the plane crash that killed the son of Nigeria's Head of State, Sani Abacha, in 1996.

He is perhaps the only super-rich Nigerian alive today to come from a super-rich family -- his maternal great-grandfather was the richest man in West Africa in the 1900s (the book quotes an editor of West Africa magazine as referring to Alhassan Dantata, in 1955, as "possibly the richest man of any race in the whole of West Africa, and was in himself, a living rebuttal of the allegation that Africans, as a race, have no commercial aptitude, an example to his fellow -- countrymen of what a man can rise to even without education and a wealthy background").
A decade later maternal grandfather Sanusi Dantata was listed, by Time magazine, amongst Nigeria's richest persons. In a country where even the most lavish wealth typically will not outlast the creator-generation, the Dantata clan has proved remarkably odds-defying.

Yet from this biography it is clear that Aliko's story is not really about patrimony. While there is no doubt that he started out from a significantly privileged position (a substantial start-up loan from grandfather Sanusi, which he says he paid back within months), it is also clear that success -- his cement company alone accounts for a third of the value of the Nigerian stock market -- is more about innate genius than familial privilege.

Because it is not an authorised biography, there is much that is missing. "We were in Nigeria and Africa for fourteen months working on the Aliko biography," the authors write. "We reached out to some of his aides to get Aliko to sit down for an interview for this book but were unsuccessful."

All the quotes used in the book come from "his interviews with local and world media." A reader expecting to encounter compelling anecdotes -- the sort of storytelling that illuminates the lives of characters like Aliko -- will therefore come away disappointed. The authors do not seem interested in cultivating any direct sources, and so we get virtually no opinions about Dangote from schoolmates, childhood friends, ex-lovers or business partners.

There are also the puzzling bits that the authors fail to pursue. There's no effort to account for or explain what the reader would perceive as Aliko's precociousness -- by 1977, according to the book, the 20-year-old Dangote had been to University in Egypt, earned his first degree, and completed his national service.

The strength of Dangote lies in its exploration of the forces, attitudes and circumstances that shaped and still shape Dangote's life and business -- everything from the influence of his maternal grandfather to his city of birth (Kano, commercial capital of Northern Nigeria) to his absolute devotion to Islam. These and more explain his remarkable business acumen, his much-criticised closeness to Nigeria's successive governments, his unwavering belief in the economic potentials of Nigeria, and his philanthropic spirit.

From Dangote we see that Aliko's life is a careful balancing game, in a country where 'politics' -- by every definition of it -- is more than everything. On the one hand is the family philosophy, established by forebear Sanusi Dantata. Aliko is quoted as saying, of his grandfather: "He always advises us that: no matter what you do, you must always respect the authority of the day. Do not fight government. You must be an obedient person. And that's something I learnt and took seriously."

This "obedience" exists in tension with an obsession with the quality of political leadership in the country -- driven, no doubt, by an instinct for self-preservation: "... if bad and inexperienced politicians control power in Nigeria, my wealth may turn into poverty and I am not ready to become a poor man."

Dangote is as much a biography of Aliko's forebears as it is of Aliko himself. Readers unfamiliar with Nigeria will also learn a lot about the country's turbulent political and economic history -- clearly the story of the billionaire and his country are inextricably intertwined.

The authors make copious attempts -- sometimes overdoing it -- to draw parallels between Aliko and other wealthy and influential persons from around the world, especially America, as though to convince the fact that Nigeria finally has a mogul who can be written about alongside the best-known on the planet.

Chapter 14 -- 'What is next... ' -- reminds us that it is morning still in the Dangote Universe, and that the billionaire's mission is simple: to conquer Africa and the world with the Dangote brand.

Dangote is a commendable start. In a land lacking a culture of independent biography, this is a starting point, and Dangote -- part unauthorised biography, part history book, and part success-manual -- is a promising introduction to the fascinating and still largely unmapped universe of one of the world's richest men.

Title: ALIKO MOHAMMAD DANGOTE: The biography of the richest black person in the world
Authors: Moshood Ademola Fayemiwo and Margie Marie Neal
Publication Date: July 2012