By Festus Adedayo
Yes, it is a season of claims and counter-claims. Yet, cost of living is hitting the roof. Hunger is pelting the bellies of both the righteous and the infidel. Living life is almost becoming a rocket science. Charles Soludo, luxuriating in public acclamation of “one of the most cerebral Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governors,” is in his season of pontificating. Last week, he offered an escapist defence of the Nigerian establishment which citizens’ hunger could not penetrate. Soludo’s latest proffer for the people’s hunger is that the current government met a dead economy; a dead horse was his exact word. Permit me to extend that logic by borrowing British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s “just let people die,” and ask Soludo, “so let Nigerians die” because the economy inherited was a dead horse? Or, what is the final destination of that argument? There have since been attempts at economic necromancy. Every attempt must be made to make this economy’s corpse walk.
That is however not the drift of this piece. Two octopuses of Nigerian financial ocean are at daggers drawn at the moment and their destructive tiffs are rebounding negatively on the economy. Aliko Dangote of the famous Dangote Group and Abdul Samad Rabiu of BUA, two czars of the largest business entities in Nigeria, are fighting dirty. On the streets, in the courts and in the media, the two blue whales of the Nigerian economy are engaged in an acrimonious rivalry that is unexampled. A few weeks ago, that rivalry landed in the public space like a smelly puddle. The two of them openly washed their dirty linens, linens that had hitherto been wrapped in shawls of hushed whispers.
How does anyone describe this tiff, with its blood-baiting mutual exchange? A business rivalry, peer jealousy or business vulture tendency gone awry? It is a duel that has provoked such self-cancelling ruckus, the type found among co-wives in polygamy. An immediate correlation I can readily find to describe this is an autobiographical movie authored by Oyin Adejobi, late Yoruba cripple thespian. Adejobi was renowned for his famous African alternative dispute resolution drama sketches called Kootu Asipa of the 1980s. In it, he allegorized the story of how he became disabled. In Orogun Adedigba, (the wicked co-wife), Adejobi narrativized how his mother’s jealously wicked co-wife puffed up the fire of a destructive potion that immobilized him for life. That singular malediction became the burden Adejobi shouldered for his 74 years on earth. Though the Osogbo-born thespian’s stepmother’s potion succeeded in crippling him, it couldn’t stop the realization of his life’s attainment. Iconoclastic Yoruba Kennery brand music lord, Orlando Owomoyela (Owo’s) Itan Orogun Meji (the story of two co-wives) also explains the concept of a polygamous home’s squabbles which bear similar indicators to the Dangote and Rabiu self-neutralizing squabble.
Owomoyela, the nonconformist musician’s narrative goes thus: Two co-wives in a traditional African Yoruba home were engaged in spirited scuffles for the heart of their joint household. One day, the eldest wife conspired to kill the son of her co-wife, simply because he was more brilliant than hers. She cooked a portage delicacy served in two different plates. One, which was invitingly reddish and garnished with condiments, was sauced with a killer potion while the second plate, bereft of any poison, was whitish and uninviting. As the children of the two women arrived from school, they headed for the plates of food. While the son of the woman who hewn the death drama picked the reddish but poisoned plate, her stepson picked the one without. The malefactor’s son dies but the co-wife’s immediately went to the local football field and went a-playing football. Owo’s moral in the song is similar to that in Bob Marley’s Small Axe track. They both teach that anyone who contrives calamity for his fellow man can be compared to a man shouldering an army of ants-infested evil faggots which would soon bite them to death. Marley termed such evil-dispenser “whosoever diggeth a pit” who “shall fall in it.”
Attempts have been made to explain the Dangote/Rabiu rivalry and euphemize its deadly portent. In this regard, they say it is nothing outside the rivalries between Coke and Pepsi, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks in America. This drift is expatiated upon by invoking the ghost of Adam Smith in his famous The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith extolled the importance of competition to the public good and submitted that relentless competition is not only healthy but is a core principle of the market economy.
But what healthy rivalry would make two brothers, from same Kano State, involved in same line of businesses, not work towards to expand the frontiers of their markets but would rather seek their individual mutual destruction? While Dangote Cement is the largest cement product in Nigeria, controlling an over 60% market share, BUA Cement comes second, boasting of a market share of around 20%. Since 2008, the two companies have squared up in a bull’s fight. In the sugar refinery sector, the tango they are engulfed in is a fight of death as well. While Dangote’s sugar refinery, the most humongous in Nigeria, holds a market share of over 70%, BUA’s follows distantly with a market share hovering around 20%. It is this kind of duel you encounter in William Shakespeare plays where two armoured men clank swords in a battle that would only cease when one of them has breathed its last. It was always a duel on issue of honour or betrayal.
It is a common feature in this Dangote/Rabiu Orogun Adedigba tussle to hear of the two businessmen’s serpentine attempts to destroy each other. In 2020 for example, BUA Cement accused Dangote Cement of blocking access to its Edo State limestone quarry. Dangote Sugar Refinery responded to the alleged shenanigan by accusing BUA Sugar Refinery of price-fixing. They are both currently narrating details of these allegations before MiLords. The next year, BUA authored the wolf cry of alleging that Dangote Sugar Refinery had masterminded an attack on its sugar factory in Port Harcourt, Rivers State by sending hired thugs there. It also alleged that these hired hounds destroyed its property and inflicted massive injuries on its workers. Police were called in to ascertain the veracity or otherwise of the allegations. Rolled into this are also allegations that one of the two business sharks deployed debilitating political connections and favoritism steeped in graft to be granted waiver on import duties for cement. The ultimate aim, it was alleged, was to aid the stifling of competition.
The most recent of this cache of allegations and counter allegations came out in a press release early this month from Dangote. It accused BUA of masterminding what it called false allegation that it was being probed by the Jim Obazee Special Investigator. It alleged that its rival claimed it was involved in illegal foreign exchange deals and money laundering which allegedly had Godwin Emefiele’s Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as lead actor. In the said press release, the Dangote group decimated these allegations as spurious and a “rehash of a similar report peddled out of malice” since 2016.
BUA’s reply didn’t thaw the ice. It documented what it alleged were a myriad of acts of sabotage authored by Dangote against its operations. It also claimed that Dangote’s allegations were “very cheap attempts at blackmail… following months of sponsored campaigns of calumny against us.” Dangote’s concatenation of treacheries against it, alleged BUA, began from 1991, which later became “a ruse that would lead to a court-sanctioned freeze of our assets,” leading to a situation in which, “for three agonising months, our accounts were garnished, warehouses shuttered, and our spirit tested. Yet, from the ashes of deceit, BUA survived.” It also listed interventions by Late President Umaru Yar’Adua and Muhammadu Buhari whose timely reach prevented the octopodal hands of Dangote from sinking its company. BUA’s song looks very similar to the lyrics of Marley’s Small Axe song: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe/ready to cut you down/And we are gonna cut you down!”
From all the above, it should be clear that what the duo of Dangote and his Kano brother are about is beyond the Adam Smith’s health-inherent competition, nor does it resemble in any way the Coke and Pepsi, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Macdonald’s and Burger King competition. Those American competitions no doubt resembled Smith’s evergreen proffers in the Wealth of Nations. Not this. Many people reason that, buried inside this Dangote/Rabiu quarrel is an age-long particular issue-provoked enmity which the two are probably not ready to disclose to the public.
For Nigerian consumers of the duo’s products, this rivalry has potential benefits. A couple of months ago, BUA announced its intention to reduce the cost of cement to N3,500. Were the two friends, we would not have this people-centric riposte. The reduction in price received applauses all over Nigeria. For a shrewd businessman like Dangote for whom profit is king and not the customer, the BUA price reduction must be a scalpel to a wound. The enmity has continued regardless.
For the sectors where the two of them are major players, this inexplicable enmity has disastrous implications. Association with one must be equal to enmity with the other, an equation that is not healthy for business at all. I learnt that many top brass in the political and business spheres have attempted an armistice between Rabiu and Aliko, without any let. This affirms my earlier submission that the real reason for this rivalry may have been hidden from Nigerians.
No matter how the two business whales play out this squabble in the courts and the media, the street seems to have made up its mind on who to apportion blames. One of them is renowned with an Orogun Adedigba history of vulture-like business practices, seeking to and succeeding in swallowing the carcasses of its competitors. It is a whale that enjoys singular wallow inside the ocean and from the claws of its deadly grips, shrimps that attempted to grow have died premature deaths.