VP Osinbajo in Zambia to commission Dangote Cement plant tomorrow, African economic integration in progress.
— Laolu Akande (@akandeoj) August 3, 2015
Apologies if you do not share my irritation at this madness but this shit makes my blood boil.
I have all the respect in the world for Prof Osinbajo for his intellect and his person. But this Dangote matter is deeply offensive and it speaks to who we are as a country and why we are the way we are. It also tells us why Nigerians instinctively hate ‘capitalism’, something that has been the most powerful anti-poverty system known to man in history.
This brand of whatever it is that is being practiced in Nigeria is NOT capitalism and it is not morally defensible on any level. In many cases, it is economic terrorism against the Nigerian people sanctioned by the Nigerian government itself.
What Is Capitalism?
People often think capitalism is about ‘capital’. No it isn’t. It is knowledge upon knowledge upon knowledge. That is how it improves people’s lives around the world.
My son who is almost 6 years old only knows that toothpaste comes in rubber tubes. It makes sense that way because it is less messy and toothpaste tube can have lots of nice designs on it to make brushing more appealing to children.
But it was not always so. 20 years or so ago, toothpaste regularly came in aluminium tubes. And it had all sorts of problems. Getting out the final 10% of toothpaste in the tube was a headache – by the time you rolled and squeezed it, it would cut open at the sides and could give you cuts if you were not careful. The design on the tube also faded after a while especially if the tube had been stressed to get it all out.
The knowledge of everything wrong with aluminium toothpaste tubes is contained inside rubber tubes today. We arrived at rubber tubes after finding out that aluminium is not the best way to sell it. My son cannot see this but I can.
Even better, as this improvement in toothpaste has happened, its cost has not gone up and millions of people who used to use sticks and herbs to brush their teeth now use toothpaste instead. Toothpaste is now at the point where we can conveniently take it for granted.
The next step in this journey of getting the toothpaste out of the tube perfectly is the development of something known as Liquiglide. You might not know that this problem exists yet, but when the solution arrives on the market, you will appreciate it. A more efficient toothpaste tube will help the toothpaste makers make more money and be able to lower prices in future.
If people think about capitalism in this way, they will come to appreciate it and demand more of it. An iPhone today that costs $750 would have cost $3,000 to put together in 1990. We can now do so much more with our lives because of the way that capitalism improves products and makes life better. We are also more knowledgeable and can pack more of such knowledge into our lives – Prof Ricardo Hausmann makes the point that a bachelor’s degree at Harvard has always taken 4 years to complete for centuries now and yet we know for a fact that people today know far far more than people knew in the 17th century.
Nigeria Turns Things On Its Head
I have written several times about how Aliko Dangote manipulates the media and the government in a way that allows him transfer wealth from the Nigerian people to himself.
The most annoying response I get is when people try to compare him to Rockefeller or the other ‘robber barons’ (who did not rob anybody). The most obvious answer to people who make this ridiculous claim is that Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Walton all made money by bringing prices DOWN– I repeat DOWN. Things that were previously unaffordable to millions of people were made mainstream by these guys. Ford was motivated by a desire to make cars mass market and he was successful. Even when Rockefeller was tried for anti-trust, there was not a single person who made the argument that he was bad for consumers. This was why, after the American government broke up his companies, he got richer – again I repeat, richer. He had created so much value that was locked inside his companies such that if money was his sole motivation, he would definitely have broken himself up before the government did.
What is this thing that we are doing in Nigeria in the name of capitalism?
The Conspiracy To Rob Nigerians
Last year I sat in a session at the World Economic Forum with my mouth wide open in amazement as President Jonathan said ‘Look at Dangote who is the richest man in Africa, without our policies, he would not be as rich today’.
Imagine my surprise at discovering that the Nigerian government had a policy of creating billionaires and I did not know about it.
This is how the Nigerian government helps to guarantee that capitalism will not work in the way that it should. The government might is used to protect rich people against poor people and ensuring that the wealth transfer from poor to rich continues unhindered. I thought we had reached ‘Peak Dangote’ under the last government but with the way things are starting under the Buhari, we are on our way to the same depressing shit.
At no point does anyone in the government stop and ask themselves the question – what does this guy (and his friends) do for the Nigerian economy exactly? Are they a net positive or negative? Further, those who have been expensively educated in Nigeria and abroad, capitulate like a pack of dominoes and toe the Dangote line, ascribing to him what he is patently not. Where questions ought to be asked, praise is given instead. Where capitalism and all the wonderful things it can do to improve lives should be ‘louded’, its evil twin – crony capitalism – is passed off as the real thing. And we wonder why Nigerians continue to reject things that can make their lives better.
If the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, duly elected by the citizens and consumers of Nigeria thinks it is ok to go all the way to Zambia to commission a Dangote cement plant (a few weeks ago, the CBN governor and sundry others went to Ethiopia to commission another cement plant), then questions, or posers as Nigerians like to call it will suffice
1. Which other country in the world where a lot of construction is going on has a guy who sells cement on their top 5 richest people list?
If you go to Dubai and wait 2 years before going back, you will see a visible difference there in terms of construction. They are using cement to do what cement is supposed to be used for i.e build things that everyone can see. So why don’t they have a ‘cement magnate’ on their rich list?
Same thing goes for China where the pace of building things is frankly breathtaking. Where is the ‘cement magnate’ in China?
What you will find instead is people who add value to cement among the richest people in those countries e.g Emaar, Nakheel, Dalian Wanda.
2. Can Alhaji Dangote build and sell 1,000 houses in Nigeria today? It’s a useful test to carry out. He makes the cement and sells it with obscene margins so why not ask him to build just 1,000 homes in Nigeria today and sell each one at a profit within a year?
I am confident that he cannot pull it off. But I will be happy to be proved wrong
3. All the major infrastructure in Nigeria was built when we were importing cement. All the bridges in Lagos including 3rd Mainland and bridges across the country were built with foreign cement.
The biggest infrastructural achievement of any Nigerian government in my lifetime is Abuja. It was built with imported cement.
So the question is this – since Nigeria started being ‘self sufficient’ in poverty, sorry cement, what has been built with it? It is pointless to have all this cement just ‘for show’ and to stop some imaginary jobs being shipped abroad. Cement is not for drinking garri – it is for building things which cannot be hidden.
4. At the very least – we should be asking how much tax Dangote pays to the country that has given him so much. Things have been banned for him. Policies have been written in his name. Waivers have been granted to him and many other businesses have been ruined for his sake.
So what exactly has Nigeria and Nigerians got out of the deal? Is it the 20,000 jobs he has created (half of which are ‘casual’ staff?). Is that the extent of our ambition as a nation?
The biggest beneficiary of Dangote Cement is Dangote himself. So why is the Nigerian government going to commission his plant for him in a foreign country? What is the business of the people who elected a government to serve them with a man who is making as much money as he can get away with at their expense?
5. What has been the contribution of Dangote Cement to the global body of knowledge of cement manufacturing? Has anyone come to Nigeria to learn how to make cement. Dangote Cement is by FAR the most profitable cement company in the world.
What is the secret sauce? Who has copied it? And why is it that this profitability goes side by side with eye watering cement prices that are padded with margins as high as 70%. What did Dangote Cement invent that brought about these kind of wonderful profits?
Capitalism is a moral thing, at least to me. It is pointless otherwise. It is a powerful tool to fight the indignity of poverty that consigns people to a miserable existence. Yes, people get rich out of it but they have to do this by giving consumers what they want.
This process breaks down when a pretend capitalist is able to team up with the government in a way that allows him/her to give people what they do not want and make a fortune while at it e.g cement.
The Nigerian government, elected by the people, should stop insulting its citizens with the irritating and ceaseless exaltation of Dangote as the physical manifestation of destiny. Let him make his money, he already has enough of it. But leave the Nigerian government out of it. A new government elected on a change mandate should not be succumbing to the Dangote virus so easily.
What is the worst thing that can happen if Nigeria starts importing cement again? Prices will come down and more things will get built creating thousands of jobs in the process. And Dangote will get poorer.
I know what I will choose if that package was on offer.
*I’ve written this in a lot of irritation and I cannot be bothered to edit for grammar. Any errors are regretted.