Aliko Dangote lives as you might expect, given he’s the richest person in Africa and resides in the same country being bullied by the insidious Boko Haram terrorist group, which finds something noble in kidnapping village girls. Located on Victoria Island, a wealthy Lagos enclave that has a moat in the form of a lagoon and the far eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, his mansion comes with all the trimmings: massive black gate, bulletproof windows, Big Brother video surveillance, guards and a secret entryway.
After I enter, a butler motions to a sitting room overlooking a patio and a blue-tiled pool. The three-story fortress is shielded from the 90-degree heat by powerful air-conditioners (themselves presumably shielded from Nigeria’s notoriously unreliable electric grid by diesel generators). Dangote, round-faced with a trimmed graying mustache, appears from upstairs dressed in khakis and a casual blue button-down. The 57-year-old can seem miscast in the role of industrial titan, often speaking so softly that he mumbles.
As breakfast arrives by the platterful, including plantains, smoked chicken in red sauce, diced sweet potatoes, white fish and sausage, he sticks to coy conversation. Whether about his country’s fraught presidential election (“It’s going to be tough for both parties”) or his cement company’s long-delayed overseas listing (“Maybe next year”), he has little to say.
On one subject, though, he is always articulate. “Nigeria is one of the best-kept secrets,” Dangote says. “A lot of foreigners are not investing because they’re waiting for the right time. There is no right time.”
Nigeria does provide fertile opportunity for vast wealth. As evidence, look no further than Dangote’s No. 67 rank on the World’s Billionaires List and his $14.7 billion fortune–mostly from three majority stakes in publicly traded cement, sugar and flour companies. And he doesn’t arrive here alone. In another dramatic sign of his country’s emergence, Nigeria has overtaken South Africa on FORBES’ 50 Richest in Africa ranking. Thirteen Nigerians earned spots in 2014, including a trio of new billionaires.
Dangote and these other Nigerians power Africa’s largest economy. The drop in crude prices prompted the oil-rich country’s stock index to plunge 40% last year, taking Dangote’s net worth down in lockstep–no surprise, since his companies account for almost a third of the nation’s benchmark index (his $10.3 billion drop in net worth was the world’s largest last year). But the underlying fundamentals are strong. From 2010 to 2013, Nigerian GDP expanded by an average of 5% a year. (It now totals some $500 billion, or a third larger than South Africa.) Even with the oil glut, forecasters believe this year’s growth will top 5%. In fact, according to a widely cited Citigroup C -0.93% report, economists expect Nigeria to have among the fastest average annual GDP growth in the world between 2010 and 2050.
There are other reasons for international interest as well. In the shadow of rising Islamic militancy, which has destabilized the Middle East and now threatens to do the same to parts of Africa, President Obama recently issued an executive order tasking U.S. business executives with strengthening trade ties to sub-Saharan Africa (the council includes heavy hitters from Wal-Mart, G.E. and McKinsey). Prior to that, in May 2014, he dispatched Penny Pritzker to Nigeria, the first visit by a Commerce Secretary in two decades. America’s foreign direct investment in Nigeria reached a continent-leading $8.2 billion in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. Overall U.S.-Nigerian trade was $9.8 billion last year. Nigeria sells far less oil to America these days–it exported $2 billion of the black stuff last year as the U.S.’ tenth-largest supplier–so most of that trade comes through other goods and services.
Keeping Nigeria successful is critical. The country is already Africa’s most populous, with more than 170 million people, and that figure will swell to 210 million by 2022. By 2050 Nigeria is forecast to overtake the United States (440 million to 400 million). Yet a majority of the people subsist on less than $1.25 a day. About half are illiterate; most are very young (the country’s median age is 18.3). And 50% of rural Nigeria lacks access to clean drinking water. It’s hard to imagine the government coming to grips with it all, even if oil prices recover. Nigeria consistently ranks in the bottom quarter of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, and is proving a feckless pursuer of the Boko Haram thugs terrorizing the northeast.
All of which makes Dangote–well connected, wildly wealthy and ready to do business–an increasingly important player on the world stage. “Anyone doing business in Africa,” says David Rubenstein, the cofounder of the Carlyle Group and a fellow billionaire, “knows Dangote.”
The rest of this editorial will be published at a later date. This editorial was originally published in FORBES.