Aliko Dangote
Aliko Dangote

Like Kwame Nkrumah, Aliko Dangote craves intra-African trade

Living in California from the 1970s, I depended for news about Ghana from two main sources: initially from the “West Africa” weekly magazine, and later on from the “Talking Drum” weekly, edited by Elizabeth Ohene.


Both magazines were published in London. 

I remember a meeting in Los Angeles with Kaye Whiteman, the editor of “West Africa” at the time. 

He was about to retire, and asked if I would consider taking on the role of editor.

He was to disclose that the weekly needed money to continue operating; and for him, that was a major task for the new boss.

I respectfully declined the request knowing clearly that I lacked both the emotional stamina and financial wherewithal for the undertaking.

The editor and I had known each other for years mainly through our written correspondence.

Right from my student years he had published many letters and articles which I mailed to him by post. 


Another source of information about the African continent came occasionally from reports written for the “Los Angeles Times” by the seasoned correspondent David Lamb.

 In 1982, he published “The Africans: Encounters from the Sudan to the Cape”.

He wrote: “Like every African country, Ghana pays a stiff price today because it still trades principally with the developed world, not with its neighbours.

This is another legacy of the one commodity economies introduced by the colonialists and another retardant to Africa’s economic growth.”

Noting that only four per cent of Africa’s total trade is with Africa - the smallest intercontinental trade in the world – he reasoned: “To understand the obstacles, imagine what will happen to the American economy if each of the fifty states traded with the world but hardly ever with one another.”

Under such impossible scenarios he noted with irony how, “California and Nevada will not do business, so California and Nevada will buy its lettuce from Mexico and its beef from Australia.

Maine will sell fish to Italy and canoes to Brazil and nothing to Massachusetts.

New York and North Carolina will buy all their manufactured goods from Europe and Asia.

If the New York apple crop failed one season the state would have to borrow money from England because it would have no other commodities to cushion the loss of revenue.”

Dangote’s frustration

A most notable businessman frustrated by the persistent hassles impeding intra-African trade was none other than the tycoon, Aliko Dangote.

 In a recent interview, he demanded, “Why don't you give Africans visa on arrival?

That will facilitate trade. If you are making life difficult for me, there's no way I'll go and invest.”

Having invested about $620 million in South Africa - actually the biggest African investment by him – he refused when a neighbouring country, Angola, requested for him to come to invest there as well. Dangote’s rejection hinged on the reason that even getting a visa to get there was hard.


That visa bit got my mind rolling back to the mid-1970s in the US where with a friend - during a particular summer vacation - we drove about three thousand miles across the North American continent - from Los Angeles to New York - crossing around ten state lines freely.

The only hitch happened when zooming on a highway in Amarillo, Texas, we were stopped by a highway patrol who merely issued a speeding citation and sped off.

According to Dangote, we must free up and make sure that we allow Africans to move in.

He said, “Today, when you talk to them, they say, No, No: it's about security.


 Then I say [but] most of these guys disturbing us in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria … don't have a visa; they don't even need a visa.

They come through the land.

 So if they don't need a visa, why me [with] money [to] invest?

You are harassing me. It doesn't make sense.”

He pleaded that Africa’s leaders must actually muster the political will to remove all obstacles. 

Critical thinking

Dangote used Saudi Arabia as an example of a country that has actually opened up the economy.


He said the economy was booming, and the Saudis were making too much money:

“Hotels that I used to go and pay $500 [are now] charging almost $2,000 because they are having an avalanche of people arriving there.”

To latch behind a clever idea, Dangote noted that, first of all, it was imperative for the continent to make sure that the regional markets work; and that right now while not allowing free trade for legitimate businesses, the smugglers were having a free trade moving goods from Benin, for example, into Nigeria.

He illustrated that “those guys, you see loading rice and other stuff” crisscrossed freely right through the forest borders unchecked.

He lamented: “Really, we are a dumping ground in Africa.

And what I keep saying, because we have not really industrialised, we are only exporting raw materials.

 So what is happening is that people are actually only importing; I mean, what's going on is that we are importing poverty and exporting jobs. Yes.”

It’s long overdue to heed the essence of Kwame Nkrumah’s concerns when he noted in his book, “Africa Must Unite” that “Foremost of all would be economic independence, without which our political independence would be valueless.”

The presence of the likes of Aliko Dangote on the continent is a blessing indeed, heralding a brighter economic future for Africa.

— The author is a trainer of teachers, leadership coach and quality education advocate

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