Obajana, Yahaya Bello and the Battle for the Homeland

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In recent days, the Kogi State governor, Mr. Yahaya Bello, has been in a battle with Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, over the Obajana cement factory situated in the state. Following the claims and counter-claims by the feuding parties, some commentators have taken an uncritical, bandwagon approach to the issue. On a daily basis, we are assailed with emotional submissions about the Kogi governor stoking fire, jeopardizing investments, crippling the economy in an election year,  and other shibboleths. After the governor directed a shutdown of the company, reports warned that thousands of Kogi people working in the company would be affected, and that the state government had been unthinking. For me, though, the question must be asked whether there’s a basis for Bello’s belligerence. In this regard, I think that his case/cause deserves a re-evaluation even if he must learn to be more diplomatic.

The fact is not disputed that Obajana Cement Company was solely founded in 1992 by Kogi State, which held 100 per cent shareholding in trust for its people long before the advent of Dangote Cement Plc. What is at stake is the shareholding structure. Per the Dangote Group, Obajana is its sole property without question. It said: “Dangote Industries Ltd was issued three certificates of occupancy in its name after payment of necessary fees and compensation to landowners. The plant and machinery were conceived, designed, procured, built, and paid for solely by Dangote Industries Ltd., again, well after it acquired the shares in Obajana Cement Company.”

But that, really, is where the controversy lies. When, how and why precisely was a company founded by the Kogi State government turned completely over to Dangote? This question is important, because the Kogi State government was said to have taken a hefty loan to conduct the feasibility assessments which confirmed the existence of the “vast limestone deposits that DIL found so enticing years later.” Then, is it true that successive administrations had always invited DIL and Dangote Cement Plc (DCP) to prove that it paid anything at all for the purported acquisition of Obajana and its alleged 100 per cent ownership, but  that “each time, DIL and DCP have woefully failed to do so”? It surely cannot be the case that while the Kogi State government was still battling to repay the said loan, it turned over the company it founded to Dangote for free! And there’s another pertinent question asked by the Kogi State government: If Obajana is wholly owned by Dangote, then how did Kogi State officials get listed as shareholders of the company, holding shares for and on behalf of the people of Kogi State, in filings made by DIL and DCP at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC)?

These questions are relevant given recent history and Dangote’s stranglehold on the Nigerian economy.  Per a Bloomberg report, the average global profit margin for cement companies was 17.2 per cent in 2015. But in the same year, the Dangote Group had a profit margin of 42.3 per cent. In June 2016, the World Bank, addressing the consequences of monopolies in some industries in Africa, discovered that cement cost an average of  $9.57 per 50kg bag on the continent, whereas it cost $3.25 globally. Dangote, riding the waves of federal patronage, has an unfairly huge stake in Nigeria’s cement industry and dictates prices. This is a classic instance of crony capitalism. Anti-trust laws are meant to check abuses of this kind, but political connections thwart any law in this clime.

Since the return to democracy in 1999, what the Federal Government has done is to put virtually every Nigerian at the mercy of Dangote. To eat pasta, salt and sugar and to build a house, it seems, you almost always have to go the Dangote route. That would never happen in the UK or USA: it would be viewed as a felony. There’s simply no evidence that Dangote has thrived anywhere there’s been healthy competition. Indeed, it does seem to be the case that Nigerians cannot have anything that Dangote has not thought to supply. It’s been long reported that Dangote Cement’s 65 per cent share of Nigeria’s cement market means that he sets the prices for the commodity in the country. That’s why the allegations in Kogi are so concerning.

To gain their wealth, the world’s biggest capitalists simply give people what they did not previously thought they needed or could have. They mass produce things at reasonable prices. Elon Musk’s rollout of electric cars met a need. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook goon, leveraged on technology to meet communal needs. He saw the human impulse for fellowship and sought to use technology to promote that impulse without getting people to pay through the nose. Mike Adenuga, knowing  as they say that talk is cheap, decided to make it literally cheap via telephony: he rolled out GSM lines at giveaway prices when some people were still holding Nigeria by the jugular. Getting dollar at the official rates to the exclusion of others is not creativity; it’s cronyism. Anyone who has such leverage is bound to be one of Africa’s biggest moneybags.

The foregoing notwithstanding, the reports that cement is cheaper in Kano than Kogi, and that Dangote’s company is implicated in the virtual despoliation of the host communities, deserve a second look. If, before our very eyes, the Kogi people are experiencing the same kind of horror that the Niger Delta people experienced for decades, then there’s a need to speak up. If you take a dispassionate look at the nature and spread of the protests that have sprung up in Kogi State and other places in recent days, you would have little trouble surmising that they are far beyond anything that Governor Bello could have orchestrated. The protesters in Ijumu talked about “polluted lands, trailers killing our people everyday, and erosion activities that have wreaked huge havoc  and endangered people’s lives.” There is, in my view, a genuine case to be made about the grievances of a long tormented populace.

But then, there is a need to refocus the advocacy. If Obajana became Dangote’s sole property in unclear circumstances, then there’s a need to unravel and interrogate the government officials who made that possible. Surely, Dangote can’t be blamed for anyone’s stupidity; he is in business to make money, and business isn’t holiness. Who sold Kogi’s patrimony to Dangote and why? It’s time for answers.

– Abiodun Awolaja

First Published on Tribune

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