Alhaji Aliko Dangote is Nigeria’s best-known industrialist and among the most powerful and influential. His rapidly expanding business empire is an old-style conglomerate, with growing interests in a varied assortment of industries, including cement production, foods, clothing and real estate.
Having started out as a commodities trader – in particular importing sugar, an industry his group now dominates – Mr Dangote recognised the opportunities arising from reforms initiated during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term and invested heavily in the economy.
Mr Dangote has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mr Obasanjo, a sure sign of political support for a man who remains adamantly in the private sector. He has politely dismissed any suggestion that he would seek political office but few discount his influence and stature among the country’s political leaders.
Q Foreign investors look to see what local investors are doing to assess domestic confidence in the economy. What are your investment plans in Nigeria?
We are investing heavily in various sectors: about $1.2bn over the past two years, including confirmed projects that are under way. We have two greenfield cement projects in planning, with committed funding of $820m.
Q Your group has stepped up investment since 2000, a year after Mr Obasanjo began his first term. In what way has government policy under Mr Obasanjo improved the investment environment?
A The reforms have corrected a lot of things. Business is now done much more transparently and investor confidence is growing as a result. After the first election in 1999, everyone was playing the wait-and-see game: ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘Is there going to be another coup?’ ‘Let’s wait and see what happens after the next election [in 2003].’ That’s why real momentum only began after the 2003 elections.
We have now seen that the government is committed to doing the right thing. Good governance and ethics are now practised and not just preached. Before, we would never have seen a police inspector general in handcuffs up on corruption charges – these sorts of things simply did not happen in Nigeria.
Now we have the Paris Club agreeing to a debt deal with Nigeria – a sign of confidence in the reforms. Before 2003, a Nigerian business would never have been able to open a line of credit; today we have a $70m line of credit with our suppliers. We even have some foreign banks prepared to lend to us on an unsecured basis, in one case for $80m.
Q There is ample evidence that reform is under way but can it be sustained and deepened? What will happen after the 2007 elections, when Mr Obasanjo is obliged to leave office?
A I do not expect any change of direction after 2007. The reforms have been done correctly, they have been institutionalised and I see no way in which they could be undone or reversed. Any attempt would be quickly noticed and rejected.
We are confident of this. We see and hear what the mood is on the ground and we see no indication of any support for rolling back the reforms. We fully intend to continue investing in Nigeria before and beyond 2007.
Q The government has committed itself to developing the private sector and creating an environment that is conducive to local and foreign investment. In your experience, how sincere is the government on this point and how responsive is it to the needs of the private sector?
A I think the president has gone overboard in the way he treats foreign investors. Anybody who arrives in Nigeria promising investment will get to see the president within days, especially if they are promising investment into the power sector. It shouldn’t really work like this but it shows you how anxious the government is to bring in investment.
There is a lot of support in key areas but I cannot say that the government is 100% supportive. But change is very difficult. Nigeria is emerging from a system of control to a liberalised system. The president has the best intentions and we are lucky that he is surrounded by some very capable people who understand the needs of the private sector. They are doing their best but there is still more to do.
Q Many argue that corruption is the single biggest obstacle to development in Nigeria. Do you think this is a winnable war?
A It’s definitely a war that can be won but it will take time and progress will be gradual. This is not something that can be sorted out overnight. But I can tell you that [corruption] has been drastically reduced.
There are other countries where corruption is just as bad as in Nigeria, only in our case the perception is worse than the reality. And perception takes longer to change than reality. But even perception is improving. Before 2000, you would almost certainly have been harassed on your way into the country and asked for bribes. That’s no longer the case and people now recognise that.
Q The next biggest challenge facing the country is the poor state of infrastructure. Do you see positive signs that this is improving?
A There is so much to be done. For a while yet, the country will have to spend a lot more than it is spending. But as I keep saying, we’re coming from zero, and I know that the government is trying its utmost to address this problem. It will take time but the government is at least very aware of the problem.
Q Nigeria is faced with divisions based on tribe, religion, geography and wealth. There are isolated but regular incidents of civil strife and lawlessness, which might scare investors that are already nervous amid a global climate of tension. Is the country unified, and is there common pursuit of peace and prosperity?
A In Nigeria, you always hear a lot of noise. There are individuals who beat the drums of tribalism or religion or whatever, claiming to be protecting the interests of their people but really just trying to further their own political aims.
If you read the newspapers, you would probably think the country would fall apart tomorrow. But I think that there is a lot more unity behind the reforms because most Nigerians want to realise the development and prosperity that they believe is possible for all. I am convinced that Nigeria will see through these reforms.