There is only one word to describe Alhaji Aminu Alhassan Dantata: colossus, in height, age and the stupendous wealth he has garnered, as well as experiences, lands and other properties, over the years. He has been doing business for more than 70 years—trading, construction, property, banking, manufacturing, oil and gas etc. In this interview, he spoke on his experiences, including how he successfully combined business and politics.
You are the first person I have interviewed who went to a family school set up by his father, how do you feel about this?
The school was established by our father based on what he learnt outside the country. Our father, a Nigerian who was born in a town called Bebeji, did not acquire Western education. When the British came to Nigeria, they tried to dilute or suppress Islamic education, but by the grace of God, he and his brothers and sisters were brought up purely Islamically and partly in business.
Was Alhassan Dantata a businessman in Nigeria before he travelled to Ghana?
His mother was in business because she was from a business family from part of Niger and Nigeria. It was then one country before the Europeans divided us.
What was he doing in Ghana; what kind of business?
When his father died, I think she (his mother) travelled to Ghana with him. She had some ulama in Ghana, so she took him there and stayed for long before he came back to Nigeria.
How long did he stay in Ghana?
He told us he stayed long because he married there. In fact, he used to come to Nigeria and go back to Ghana by sea because there was no road, there was no aircraft, so they used to go by canoes.
Did his experience in Ghana lead to the school he established for his children like you?
No; it was not a family school. The school we were doing at that time was a normal traditional school, that is “makarantar allo,” with his children, his staff’s children and neighbours in the area.
You didn’t spend too many years in the school as you went straight into business as a very young person, why?
All the family got into school – Arabic school, then western school. They went to primary school here. The school is still in existence, just about two miles from this house. They used to walk by foot to go and come back.
At what point did you go into business; was it straight after primary school?
During holidays, our father used to teach us how to trade. During those days, trucks were not available in the country. Groundnuts, cotton, hides and skin were brought, sometimes by cattle, sometimes by camels and even by donkeys.
So you were using donkeys to travel to sell?
Yes. In fact, you will be surprised to hear that sometimes the trucks would take more than five days to reach their destinations. There were certain areas you would reach and you would have to evacuate the goods and put on the donkeys. That is why we are used to walking or riding donkeys, camels or bicycles, whatever was possible.
At one point you were representing the family business in Sokoto Province?
Yes, but before then I took over the station from my senior brother, Ahmadu Dantata in Bichi in1947.
You were still very young at this point?
At that time I was 17. In our family people started business young. At seven/eight, our father used to show us how we could make money. He would say, “Look, you see the people bringing groundnuts here, they have donkeys, camels and cows, so try and do something to earn money. Get a calabash, put water in it, put salt, the camel will drink, and on each donkey you get one tenth of the penny, (anini) and cattle two pence, the camel half a penny.”
Did the family business stop with the death of your father and elder brothers went on their own?
No; before our father died, he established a company called Al Hassan Dantata & Sons. He called the two brothers, the most senior at that time, Alhaji Ahmadu and Alhaji Sanusi and told them, “You see, this illness is going to take me.”
How old was he then?
It was around 1953 or 1954.
Was he very old at that time?
He was old, but not as old as I am now. I think he died at seventy plus. He told them that he wanted the company to continue. Before they said anything he added, “But I think some may not agree with my suggestion.”
Some of the sons?
That was what he told the two most senior sons. I saw him a day before he died. I went to greet him and when he saw me he said, “Aminu is here …”
He suggested you should be the managing director?
No, Alaji. Ahmadu is the most senior; he was the managing director; and there was joint ownership.
When our father died, they gathered us and said, “Baba said we should continue with this company, what is your opinion?”
Those he pointed out (the same two) said they wanted to go on their own. The first one was already grown up, he gave me about five years.
Older than you?
Yes, but the other one was older by about a year and half. So they said, “We have to take your money to the authorities until you are mature at 18. That was how it was done.
So the inheritance wasn’t divided so that everybody got his own?
It was divided, but it was kept as he wished. Only two wanted to get their money. One was given his own and the other one was taken to the authorities.
Also, Alhaji Sanusi wanted to get his own line of business. That’s why the company was divided into two, Al Hassan Dantata & Sons and Sanusi Dantata & Sons.
And there was competition between the two?
There was no competition, or it was a healthy competition. We continued like that.
Then Alhaji Ahmadu also passed away and they decided to get Alhaji Garba Maisikeli to have more say in the company.
But you were the managing director, right?
No, Maisikeli was the managing director; I was his deputy.
So ADS continued as a trading company?
Did you pull out at some point to set up your own?
I didn’t pull out. As time went, some of Alhaji Ahmadu’s children wanted to know what was happening and so on. So Maisikeli and myself decided to open accounts for their own properties to collect rent and dividends.
Was that the beginning of you being on your own?
When we were growing, I tried to emulate my father on buying lands.
He had been telling us all, “If you want to make money, invest in land.” He said land was good business.
Not in buildings and other properties?
Just land because in building you must first buy land. This area we are sitting now is part of the land of our father. He owned land in this country, in the areas where railways passed through.
In Kano here?
Not only in Kano but the whole country.
The first train was Lagos to Kano. The second one was Lagos to Maiduguri, and thirdly, Lagos to Gusau; everywhere the railway passed because we were stocking groundnuts before shipping.
The irony is that at that time a land they are now calling in millions or billions was something you could buy at maybe 500 pounds.
Would you say the foundation of your own wealth is also land because you copied your father and started buying lands?
I copied him, so did most people in the family.
How much do you own? In what places do you have land?
I don’t think I would be able to tell you what land I have now, all over the world, not only in Nigeria. In Nigeria, there is nowhere I don’t have lands. Also, in areas where people don’t have the opportunity, I have lands. I have in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Egypt. I have a land in the United Kingdom and Germany.
What of America?
Yes, in America, where I sent some of the children to school. I bought a house in Florida.
I know you have a private aircraft; do you have the chance to visit these places where you have lands or other properties?
The reason I first bought my aircraft is to be able to go to certain areas where there are no big aircraft, or where there are no good roads. I bought my first aircraft at the end of 1966.
The year of the coup?
Before the Sardauna was killed, the president of Niger, at one time came to complain. He told Sardauna that they had a factory in Niger, in a town called Malbaza, but they were not able to sell the cement. So Sardauna said, “Aminu you should go and see if you can help them.” And I said we could it.
I went to Niger by road because at that time I hadn’t bought the plane. They managed to get us to the company and we agreed to buy all their produce.
But unfortunately, the business community in Niger was agitated, asking why somebody from Nigeria would come and buy their produce.
When I came back I told Sardauna what happened.
Before Sardauna died, there was a factory in Sokoto, known as Sokoto Cement, which was established between the Northern Nigeria Government and the business community and Sokoto Province. I bought 10 per cent share at that time because Sardauna said anybody could buy. Sardauna was so magnanimous that he allowed people to own things legitimately.
I have not seen politicians who are as honest as near 10 per cent of what our people were before.
But Sardauna favoured you and gave you a lot of contracts and access to him; is that true?
Not only me; as far as Sardauna was concerned, any capable businessman, anybody who could do anything, either a civil servant, politician or businessman, he would allow him to do it.
But I think you were one of the people who supported or financed political parties in northern Nigeria?
I was not supporting political parties, I was part of them. Sardauna established the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation (NNDC) to finance government business and individuals in the business community. As a Muslim, they did not ask us to give money before we were helped.
Before getting contracts?
Not just contracts.
Even loans. At one time, Sardauna told the companies operating in Nigeria, such as UAC, GBO, FCO, those big companies, to reduce their buying capacities to allow Nigerians take over.
Sardauna told the then minister of economic planning, Sarkin Daura, Alhaji Bashar, who also headed the marketing board, to tell them to allow Nigerians to be part of it and share the total allocation so that they would take half.
Most people may not know that from 1960 you were a member of the House of Representatives. So you were an established businessman at one side and a politician on the other; how did you manage that?
Yes. When the British wanted to give independence to Nigeria, they wanted to make sure that northerners participated fully because they felt we were more honest and forthright. When the politics started, I was not in the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), I was in the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU). I met Mallam Aminu when he was in Bauchi. Then it was called Northern Element Progressive Association (NEPA).
When Mallam Aminu Kano came into the NEPA, along the line, they decided to change the name from to NEPU. Once that happened, they wanted me to be the youth leader because I used to go on my motorcycle, chasing some traders for 1pound, 10 shillings.
Collecting money and giving it to the party, so they felt that I should be their youth leader. I remembered that my brother was in the NPC.
And I remember that my father was in the emirate. I know when he used to go there; and I know a lot of chiefs coming to his house from the palace. I slept in the emir’s palace when I was about eight years because the senior wife in Abdullahi Bayero’s house was my mother’s friend.
So this link with the establishment prevented you from being the NEPU youth leader?
Exactly. My father would not take it kindly to see his son fighting the system.
In which party did you become a member of the House in 1961?
My brother was in the NPC while I was in NEPU. In 1953 there was election for the federal seat in Lagos. The NPC got Mahmud Dantata (WAPA) into the party. Aminu Kano was supposed to get that seat, so they got them to fight for it. They contested and Mahmud Dantata won.
The following year, there was going to be a seat from the North and they also wanted to beat Aminu Kano again, so they got the Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero to contest.
He was the Wakilin Doka (chief of local police) at that time?
Exactly; but he didn’t want to. He was NEPU in mind.
Were you in NEPU together?
He was not open like me to attend meetings because he was called Wakilin Doka. He got the seat in 1955. During those years, my relationship with Aminu Kano was very tight. I was not restricted in going to his house and he was not restricted from coming to my house. So I would do whatever I could to see that he was in a good position.
After the death of Alhaji Ahmadu in 1960 you became a member of the House of Reps?
Was it a good experience for you to be directly involved in politics?
It was a good experience because at that time, people were honest, not like today’s politics. That is why what I am seeing in politics now is pathetic. We are no longer honest; people are distorting the truth and supporting mischief. It is not good.
One other area of your career, which is fairly unusual for a businessman, is that you served in the government of Kano State as a commissioner for many years (1967-1973). Why did you leave your flourishing business to go into government?
I knew Audu Bako in Kano before he became the military governor. He was a police commissioner that time. But when he was appointed governor, we didn’t meet. One day, during the evening news, I heard the names of commissioners Bako appointed and my name was among.
How did you react?
After the announcement, few days or so, he called us—Tanko Yakasai, Inuwa Dutse and myself. We knew one another long before that time.
Did you enjoy being in government or it was strange for you as a businessman?
I enjoyed it. I still remember those days – the way we worked and how we challenged the governor.
Even as his commissioners?
Yes, it is not the way it is happening today. I am sure that if anybody challenges his governor the way we did, he would be sacked. Anything that was brought to the cabinet, if we felt it was not reasonable, we would say it out.
And he didn’t sack you?
He didn’t sack us because maybe the head of state, Gowon, was showing his part of honesty of duty. The governor was showing a reasonable honesty.
You said recently in a public forum that as an elder statesman there were many occasions you advised leaders, including former President Muhammadu Buhari, even the incumbent President Bola Ahmed Tinubu; why didn’t they listen to you?
I cannot answer that because I don’t know their minds. I am really disgusted. As Muslims, God tells us that goodness is open and badness is open, it is up to us to choose what we want. If we choose good, Allah will help us, and if we take the negative we will see negativity. It is really pathetic to see what is happening today.
Whose fault is it? You are part of the elite who have set up businesses, including Masaka Textiles, one of the first indigenous manufacturing companies; what happened to it?
When it started nearly 70 years ago, people were honest and money was more respected, religion was more accepted and better practised. Everything was better at that time. After the days of our father, we found out that his share in that company was 10 per cent. I think it was 30pounds or less than that. Not many people had 30 pounds in this country.
But the company has gone?
It has gone but not completely. Some people took it over and were exploiting the original concept. It was about weaving, producing and selling army and police uniforms. At the end it had to be shut and auctioned.
You are 92, are you still involved in your businesses or you have given them up?
I am not active in business now, but I am in business. I am in business in the sense that I do what I really feel is good for me and it is honest. Each time I pray, I ask Allah to guide and stop me from doing anything that is not good.
Everybody knows that you are a very wealthy man; how do you cope with the pressure to donate money?
I am not very wealthy, but I thank God that I am rich enough to take care of myself. I believe in God’s words that if you give, Allah will reward you. Anybody who gives for Allah’s sake, Allah will give him at least 10 or 70 times. I believe in that.
Everybody around you probably wants money and you are one of the few who have it? How much giving do you do?
I don’t have to give everybody. Whoever you see me give, Allah had already destined that I would give him. And as I am giving him, Allah is giving me back, more than what I give.
But you give big amounts to universities, charity organisations, hospitals and schools, is that correct?
Yes, why not, I am giving it for the sake of Allah.
How much time do you have to enjoy your wealth? You have houses in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, England; do you have time to go round, stay and enjoy these blessings?
Anywhere you find me, I have a house. And I am not enjoying it alone, I enjoy it with my family and friends. I enjoy it with my country people. The more you give others to enjoy, the more you enjoy.
Do you still have a private aircraft you use in going around?
Yes. I told you that I bought my first aircraft in 1967 at 10,000 pounds, which was about $15,000. When I sold it after a year or so, I bought a jet; the first one was a propeller type. I bought the jet about two and half million dollars. After four years, the value increased because the value of the currency was dwindling, so I sold it about four and half million dollars.
I bought the one I am using now 15 years ago about $38million; today, if I want to sell it I may hardly get $15 million because it is dwindling.
I maintain my aircraft now for obvious reasons. Now that I am old, you hardly see me walking, so for me to be struggling to get into the aircraft is something hard. So I maintain it, at least to be more comfortable for the rest of my life.
How much travelling do you do?
Now, if you see me travelling, maybe I go to Saudi Arabia, Medina, Jeddah, from there I go to Dubai and Egypt, that’s all. For nearly 20 years now, I have not gone to Europe.
Have you cut off from Europeans?
I don’t have much to do there; and it is very expensive now.
Even for you?
Yes, of course, for anybody now. I still have my children who school. And to maintain hospital services now is very expensive. There was a time I was spending about $4m a year to check the health of the family.
Was that on insurance?
From a fairly young age, you have always had a large family; you have always married many wives; did it have something to do with being a successful businessman?
That’s what Allah arranged. Allah said you could marry up to four if you could afford it. It is legal. But you should not marry more than one if you cannot sustain it. That is the mistake we are making now. Anybody you brought to the world here, the responsibility is yours, not the mother.
I heard that you actually take care of your children, even when they are grown up. You go on holidays with them; is that true?
It is because my father did that to us when we were kids. He took us to his home town, built places for us to share with his other relatives. We did not grow as an isolated family; that is what I enjoy most.
Even with married daughters?
Yes, anything I can afford. Allah has said that if you can afford something that is legitimate, you should know how to do it. That is why I am doing it. I am praying that Allah should not give me something that other human beings would not benefit from. I believe in what Allah said, that the more you give, the more you get.
How does it feel to be 92? Is it a burden?
Of course it is a burden on the body and my physical health. It is also a burden because the atmosphere in the world today is horrible.
What is it that you don’t like about the atmosphere?
There is nothing I like now. Sadly, there is nothing much to like. We are not using the opportunities in the right way. If human beings were using the opportunities Allah has given in the right way, the world would be fantastic.
Do you have the hope that things would improve with time?
Allah said we should not give up.