In 2010 as I travelled across ten African countries in West, East, Central and Southern Africa on some strategy and consulting projects, I realised that other Africans derived their worldview about Nigeria and Nigerians from unofficial, unusual and unexpected sources.
They looked at the Nigerian banks – Access, UBA, GTBank, Zenith etc. – that were spreading across Africa and judged the Nigerian “character” and “identity” from what they saw of those banks, concluding that Nigerians were “sharp”, “aggressive” and “dynamic”; they watched Nollywood and came to the conclusion that we were diabolical, fetish and rich – and their “heroes” were not our politicians and leaders, but Rita Dominic, Omotola, Genevieve, Ini Edo, Jim Iyke etc.; they listened and danced to Naija music and loved D’banj, Bracket, P-Square, Duncan Mighty and Nice; they attended religious crusades organised by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, TB Joshua and Winners Chapel and defined our spiritual essence in those terms; they loved our footballers – Obafemi Martins, Rasheed Yekini, Kanu Nwankwo, Daniel Amokachi and Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha. Nigeria’s true ambassadors to Africa, I found, are mostly not the diplomats we send to our embassies and High Commissions, but these cultural, entertainment and economic “envoys” that define us and our country in the eyes of the world.
In addition, there are of course the crooked traders and businessmen! In both South Africa and Ghana, I was approached by hotel employees who hoped I could teach them “business” – which I later understood to be a reference to “419”! Happily, Africa is encountering another, more authentic model of the Nigerian businessman epitomised by Aliko Dangote, Tony Elemelu, Aig Aig-Imoukhuede, Wale Tinubu and others, an emerging group of pan-African investors with roots in Nigeria.
These were my reflections as I observed proceedings at the official commissioning of the Dangote Cement Plant in Ndola, Zambia. The significance of the event brought the Zambian president, Edgar Chagwa Lungu, Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and an array of Zambian and Nigerian economic and professional elite to Ndola in the Masaiti District of Zambia to the 1.5 million metric tonnes per annum (MTPA) with a 30MW coal-fired power plant on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. The investment cost the Dangote Group $400 million all, according to Aliko Dangote, generated from its operations in Nigeria.
The Dangote Group just two months earlier, on June 4, opened a 2.5 MTPA plant in Ethiopia, and before year end intends to launch other plants with an ultimate objective of operating in 16 African countries. In virtually all of these places, Dangote Group’s Investments are the largest investments by African investors! Aliko Dangote in his remarks noted that the group at maturity intends to produce 40 million tonnes from other African economies and 40 million from Nigeria totalling 80 million overall, making the group a truly continental and global player. Indeed, the early signs of an Asian pivot are present with an ongoing investment in Nepal.
The Zambian minister of commerce, trade and industry, Margaret Mwanakatwe, who previously worked for UBA in Zambia, described Dangote as “an enigma” and commended the vision, commitment and tenacity that led to the speedy completion of the project. As may be expected, “Senior Chief” Chiwala of Masaiti District nearly soured the mood – ranting about the lack of infrastructure and amenities in his community and demanding that Dangote Group remedy all the complaints of his people. I was reminded of a Nigerian governor from the North-East who mocked opponents’ media attacks on his government on the grounds that being illiterates, his people cannot read newspapers (!) as Chief Chiwala retorted to alleged insults that his people were “street kids”, by arguing that there were no streets in Ndola and therefore no street kids!
Vice President Osinbajo of course restored profundity to the event with three important themes – the need for political stability across Africa in order to foster socio-economic progress; the challenge of developing human capacity in the continent; and the imperative of African economic integration. In Osinbajo’s words, “enough has been said about African economic integration… it is time to act!” Actually, while bureaucrats and diplomats mount podiums at regional and continental summits to talk about and sign protocols and agreements on African economic integration, Aliko Dangote, Tony Elemelu, Aig Aig-Imoukhuede/Herbert Wigwe, Femi Otedola and other Nigerian businessmen are acting!
There was not one Nigerian present in Ndola who was not very proud of the pioneering efforts of Aliko Dangote as we observed the sparkling, new, ultra-modern cement factory sitting in the remote East Africa plains of the Masiati District of Zambia and the pomp, pageantry and ceremony as the investment starts bearing fruit.