How Nigeria’s top tycoons made their fortunes
Each regime has tended to throw up a set of entrepreneurs whose main skill set is colluding with civil servants to fix prices in a particular market. This is most obvious in the oil sector, where swap deals and shell companies have spirited away trillions of naira over the past few decades, but the phenomenon exists for other commodities, too.
Beyond the cabal of professional siphoners, there exists a business class more interested in making money than stealing it. The explosion of the mobile phone business proved that Nigeria’s 180 million-strong market is emerging – something that manufacturers could thrive on if they could just get the reliable electricity to make manufacturing profitable.
Meanwhile, hotels are popping up in secondary towns, not just the state capitals, and agriculture is coming back into vogue.
Since the former central bank governor Lamido Sanusi took on corrupt banking practices in 2009, the sector is looking beyond simply financing state budgets – even if their forays into funding local power and oil companies have taken a battering.
The current administration is keen on promoting these “productive” capitalists over the traditional rentiers. Cleaner politics and solid roads would be a good place to start.
Town and country
Many Nigerians reminisce about the time when factories and farms sprouted across the land – oil and cornering government contracts were not the only game in town.
With the rise of Nigerian consumers, some rich Nigerians are moving back in that direction. Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote (pictured left), opened a $20m tomato processing factory in Kano in March while continuing to work on a $9bn refinery, petro-chemicals and fertiliser complex outside of Lagos. He also owns lucrative sugar, flour and cement factories.
Dangote is a leading donor to former ruling party and also donates to the current governing party. He has found ways to impress on the Central Bank of Nigeria that it needs to give him access to foreign exchange at official rates, something less-powerful entrepreneurs are struggling to do.
Elsewhere, Nigeria’s former presidents seem to do well in agriculture – like Obasanjo Farms or Abdulsalami Abubakar’s Maizube Farms. The impeached governor of Adamawa State, Murtala Nyako, also runs a successful farm.
Watching a slow-motion video of Eko Atlantic City emerge from the ocean is a strangely compelling experience. The brainchild of brothers Ronald and Gilbert Chagoury, it is part of the accelerating property boom in one of Africa’s most expensive cities.
The Chagoury brothers’ goal is to pull in corporate headquarters and expensive serviced apartments into the development. Growth here – along with the Lekki Peninsula – will continue to make landowners and real estate moguls rich.
Building Nigeria’s future will be manna for infrastructure companies like Julius Berger. Its chairman is establishment heavyweight Mutiu Sunmonu, who also ran Shell’s Nigeria wing and sits on the board of Unilever Nigeria.
One of Nigeria’s other big infrastructure firms, Bi-Courtney, is run by the irrepressible billionaire Wale Babalakin.
The boom of indigenous oil companies has been the story of the last decade in Nigeria, with Wale Tinubu’s Oando so lucrative he moved some of his money with the help of the offices of Panamanian lawyers Mossack Fonseca of Panama Papers fame.
Others have risen, such as Kola Karim (pictured second from left) of Shoreline and and Austin Avuru of Seplat Petroleum. They will be smarting from the oil price trough, with Oando reporting one of Nigeria’s biggest-ever corporate losses last year.
Downstream marketers, some of whom made unseen fortunes from opaque contracts signed with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, will also be feeling the burn.
Phillip Ihenacho of Seven Energy hopes that his bet on the gas market is coming good. He says gas deliveries from the company trebled last year, though earnings fell more than 70%. But his other main venture, the Azura power plant in Edo State, has the greatest transformative power and is set to produce 4,500MW by the middle of 2018.
Manna from Heaven
Nowhere has the Nigerian gospel of money been heard so clearly as in the church, where pastors have enlisted the entertainment business in the battle to save souls. This is a lucrative task for which they are not required to pay tax. A Rolex, a private jet and a fleet of luxury sedans are clear signs of God’s favour on earth.
Sell-out tours for Nigerian pastors in South Africa can attest to the ability to make money while doing God’s work, a novel Nigerian export.
Despite a Synagogue Church of all Nations building collapse in which 89 South Africans were killed, pastor T.B. Joshua (pictured third from left) is still wildly popular in the country. He is estimated by Forbes to be Nigeria’s third-richest pastor, with a net worth of around $10m-$15m.
This is positively dwarfed by Bishop David Oyedepo’s estimated net worth of $150m. He started the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry – known as Winners’ Chapel – and regularly sells out tickets for his 50,000-seat church complex in Ota. This is convenient for former President Obasanjo, whose farm is down the road, underlining the fusing of political and religious elites.
Closer to the circuits of power today, the Redeemed Church of God boast vice-president Yemi Osinbajo and his spokesperson as pastors. The political and business class regularly gather at pastor Enoch Adeboye’s Lagos-based gathering, which offers rich pickings for tithes.
Where the money is
To get ahead in Nigeria, best have a bank. Telecoms tycoon Mike Adenuga owns a chunk of Equitorial Trust Bank. Oba Otudeko, who runs the Honeywell conglomerate, owns serious stakes in both First Bank and Ecobank Transnational.
Ecobank has become a Nigerian bank in all but headquarters since it swallowed the troubled Oceanic Bank in 2011. After Ecobank posted serious losses in 2015, new chief executive Ade Ayeyemi (pictured right) is battling to turn the ship around.
The next generation of banking fortunes will be made by looking to finance Nigeria growth businesses in the energy and manufacturing sectors, or at least that is the hope. With the current oil price and a tough foreign-exchange stance from the presidency, many Nigerian bankers have nostalgia for the easier days of the oil boom. ●