Now 61, building his refinery is the culmination of that ambition. It will produce every litre of refined petroleum Nigeria needs, which could end the import business at a stroke, saving the country billions of dollars in foreign exchange. Won’t he make enemies of those he is depriving of easy money? “You can’t just come and remove food from their table and think they’re just going to watch you doing it,” he says. “They will try all sorts of tricks. This is a very, very tough society. Only the toughest of the tough survive here.”
Most Nigerians assume that Dangote is tougher than the next guy. While to many he is a hero who builds factories, employs thousands and reinvests his money at home, to others he is a villain: a ruthless monopolist who squeezes favours from the government of the day and crushes competition like limestone in a cement mixer. Some accuse him of avoiding taxes by invoking an investment incentive known as “pioneer status”. Others say he is more of a rentier than an entrepreneur, gouging the country with high prices and raking in ludicrous profits. “People throw a lot of mud at you and you have to see how you can clean it up,” he says of his detractors.
In person, he is charm itself, a soft-spoken man with a pleasantly round face, close-cropped hair and a greying moustache so delicately trimmed that it is almost not there. He projects integrity and humility, even piety. I’ve met mere millionaires with more swagger than him. Yet Dangote is a billionaire 14 times over and the 100th richest person in the world, according to Forbes.
He is a networker extraordinaire. To watch him work a room is to witness a kind of genius. He irradiates a Dickensian bonhomie as he glides from table to table, picking up goodwill — and intelligence — with each pressing of the flesh. If there are competing obligations — the wedding reception of the daughter of a Big Man, a dinner for the vice-president, a foreign investors’ post-conference gala — he manages to be at all three events at once, an apparition moving unhurriedly through the room as though he has all the time in the world. Like Bill Clinton, he remembers your name; like Al Capone, he’s got your number.
Even Dangote’s yacht — named Mariya, after his mother — manages to be understated, if such a thing is possible in a 108-foot vessel with a price tag, according to Lagos’s gossipy tabloids, of $43m. It was styled after a boat owned by fellow Nigerian billionaire, Femi Otedola, though intriguingly Dangote had his built a few feet shorter.
He makes no secret of how he got his big break, one that transformed him from a wealthy man — and by all accounts a bit of a dilettante — into a business colossus whose interests straddle the continent. It happened one day not long after the election in 1999 of Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military leader who had embraced the country’s lurch to democracy by running for the presidency. Dangote contributed both to that campaign and to his subsequent re-election in 2003.
“Obasanjo called me very early in the morning and said, ‘Can we meet today?’ ” says Dangote, recalling the presidential summons. He wanted to know why Nigeria couldn’t produce cement, instead importing it by the boatload. Dangote told him it was more profitable to trade than to produce. Only if imports were restricted would it be worthwhile. Obasanjo agreed. Dangote has never looked back.
Now Africa’s undisputed King of Cement, he produces in 14 countries. I hear that the business makes 60 per cent margins, I say. He waves the number away. “We have a margin of 47 per cent,” he says, as if that were a mere bagatelle. No one else can compete on efficiency, he says.
Critics say Nigeria pays more for cement than it ought to, slowing investment in construction and housing. When I put that to him, he immediately reaches for his phone, checking out today’s prices in Ghana, Benin and Ivory Coast. His own price is competitive, he says, adding that people often forget the high transport costs of importation.
Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, despairs of a manufacturing base that has shrivelled as a consequence of oil addiction, bemoaning that Nigeria even imports toothpicks.
“What Nigeria needs is to produce locally what we can produce locally,” Dangote says, nibbling at a skewered satay, and defending the thinking that has made him rich. “Nigeria still imports vegetable oil, which makes no sense. Nigeria still imports 4.9m tonnes of wheat, which does not make sense. Nigeria still imports 97 or 98 per cent of the milk that we consume.” Of the latter (astonishing, considering the country’s roughly 20m cows), he says, “The government needs to bring out a draconian policy to stop people importing milk, just like they did with cement.”
His phone is still vibrating. This time he takes it. He’s flying to India the following morning on his private jet and is making final arrangements. While he’s talking, I take a second helping of the seafood salad, a ceviche-like dish of calamari and succulent prawns marinated in a wincing sauce.
“It has been very, very, very hectic,” he says of his recent schedule. Only that morning, his doctor warned him to slow down and get more sleep. He reckons he rarely gets five hours a night. “The heart, it keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, but there must be a limit.”