Dangote Refinery and the can-do spirit of Nigerians
By Femi Olugbile
The event was so impressive it could have been organised as a farewell party for the Buhari era. Even the most convinced detractors of the President, and there were several, with good cause, had to admit that the synchronicity of cutting the tape of the largest single-train refinery in the world, a project which started on his watch, on the eve of his departure from office, might, in the fullness of time, so burnish his image that he might yet be seen as the purveyor of change. He had promised ‘Change’ but delivered a near-fatal rending of the fabric of the nation.
The President was playing the international statesman he always wanted to be. Sometimes his efforts in the past were painful to watch because he tried too hard, flying to gatherings whether they were on potable water or climate change, and often not having much to say.
On this Lagos morning, with a light drizzle from time to time, the world had come to him. Four fellow African Heads of States sat in the front row.
Incoming Vice-President Kashim Shettima did not have to remind ‘CNN, BBC and Sky News’, as he did in his speech, that Africa was not just about the internecine war in Sudan, but about developments such as the Dangote Refinery, that were about to transform the fortunes of the continent.
Aliko Dangote, the man who had garnered nineteen billion dollars of mostly private resources, to build the largest private investment in Africa on two thousand six hundred and thirty-five hectares of pristine land in Ibeju Lekki, Lagos was an interesting study in how to be a Nigerian. Born sixty-six years ago, in Kano, related to the rich and famous Dantata family on his mother’s side, he learned the family art of making money early in life.
Governor Sanwoolu, in his speech, distilled the drama of the Dangote Refinery into the life-stories of three men – Dangote, Buhari, and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who had created the Export Free Zone in the first instance. He might have been guilty of hyperbole in stating that Aliko came Lagos forty-five years ago with nothing in his pocket, but he certainly had nothing on the scale of the fame and fortune he was to achieve in his new home. In Lagos, he found his pitch, and made his life.
Sanwoolu labelled him, proudly, a ‘Lagos indigene’. Aliko would probably have preferred to be called a ‘Lagos boy’. He lived, and still lives the part. Having the privilege of a brief glimpse behind the curtain of his life at a certain time past increased the fascination he held for you. He worked hard, but also liked to play. Sometimes late in the evenings he would drive himself as far afield as Ikeja to see his friends. Occasionally he would stop nearer home to eat amala at the house of his long-term pal, Segun Olusanya, who he once visited in his home-town in Ijebu Igbo, guided along the way by anxious calls from his host on the clunky ‘090’ cell-phones that were the order of the day then. And there were the Otedolas, and the Adelekes, and a good few others.
You recalled an evening at Ikoyi Club during the annual International Night. King Sunny Ade was on the bandstand. Recognising Aliko and his train, Sunny Ade spontaneously struck up a song that would become his anthem for the Dangote brand.
‘… Seriki me gishiri
Seriki me sukari…
He acculturated effortlessly. He was still a Kano man, devoting resources generously to causes important to his people. But many of his friends, associates and employees were from across the ethnic spectrum of Nigeria.
In his speech before the excited audience, after fumbling through a long and unwieldy protocol list, Dangote disclosed that products from the refinery would be in the market from the end of the month of July. With a capacity for 650,000 barrels of petroleum per day, it would not only meet Nigeria’s needs, but also leave excess for export. The albatross of petroleum subsidy would be lifted. It would generate twelve thousand megawatts of electricity. It would be a game changer, materially and psychologically. Nigeria would no longer be a basket case, or a land of desolation, in the minds of its people, and in the eyes of the world.
It was a heady point in history, and the import of the moment was not lost on anyone in the gathering. It was not lost on Nana Akufo-Addo, the Ghanaian President, as he took the podium to claim it as achievement for West Africa. The President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum apologised for his limited English, and reeled off encomiums to Dangote and Nigeria in Hausa. Macky Sall of Senegal, in halting English with a French accent, celebrated an African triumph.
Not a few people wondered at the boldness and can-do spirit it took for an individual to seek to transform a whole nation’s economic fortunes through such a humongous, and risky, investment. But Nigerians, all over the world, were nothing if not bold and brash. It took boldness for a Dr Olutoye to operate on a baby in the uterus, in a foreign land. Many Nigerians who achieved exceptional feats in cutting edge endeavours in foreign parts, sometimes in the teeth of jealousy and hostility, were showing nothing if not their Nigerian can-do.
As Nigeria approached a transition from one President to the next, the air was sadly poisoned with bile, invective, and bad blood. There were political, but also psycho-social problems that needed to be worked through. Not every Nigerian who settled in Lagos, and other places, like Dangote, saw the need to acculturate, adapt and respect the culture and sensibilities of their hosts. There was a lot to do, but also a lot already that was positive, and possible.
As the event began to wind to a close, President Buhari rose to give his speech, and take the tour, and unveil the plaque.
It was a symbolic end for an era, and a good place to start a new era. Perhaps there was hope, afterall.