In his Koki Quarters residence in Kano metropolis, the media-shy business tycoon, Alhaji Aminu Alhassan Dantata, 89, the chairman of Dantata Group of Companies, emerged from an adjoining door linking the compound to the sitting room, where he hosts his guests.
Dressed in his trademark white babban riga with matching white cap and half shoes, he sat in a golden-coloured settee facing the television set and reached for the remote control device, with which he flipped channels and lowered the volume to speak to his guests.
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He did not quite look his age.
In the few hours of interaction, what was strikingly clear was that his memory is intact as he recounted events from the 1950s and beyond with ease.
His guests, Media Trust’s Acting Chief Executive Officer, Malam Nura Mamman Daura, Editor-in-Chief, Malam Naziru Mika’ilu and Kano Regional Manager, Malam Yusha’u A. Ibrahim, sat on settees flanking the billionaire industrialist.
They had gone to, among other things, book an interview appointment for Daily Trust Reminiscences page.
Alhaji Dantata was polite in turning down the request.
According to the renowned businessman, he does not grant interviews because neither his father nor elder brother did that to any news medium in their lifetime, so it would not start with him.
But he said he was going to chat and his guests could extract whatever he said and publish.
Below is the excerpt from the chat:
- Dantata the traveller
The conversation began with Alhaji Dantata’s numerous foreign trips to various countries of the world.
These trips were mostly for business, but others were not.
As far back as 1956, Dantata said he had done the rounds, visited every major country in the world, including the likes of Australia, India, China, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Russia and many others.
By 1961, he had finished his round of all the Arab countries and Israel.
By that time, he recalled, countries like Saudi Arabia and others could not boast of as much wealth as Nigeria.
There were only few buildings of note in both Macca and Medinah.
“Anytime we travelled to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage in the early 1950s and 1960s, the Saudi authorities would do everything possible to delay our return journey because they wanted us to spend more days in their country.
“The logic here was that the longer we stayed, the more we would spend, and that would add value to their income.
“They usually withheld our passports and other travel documents for a few more days after the completion of pilgrimage,” he said.
For a constant traveller, Dantata had passed through many airports, and over the years, has seen these airports evolve or fall apart.
For instance, he recalled that in the 1950s, the control tower of the King Abdulazeez International Airport, Jeddah, was a wooden structure and only a few offices in the airport were concrete.
Incidentally, at that time, the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano, Nigeria, was thriving and a hub for flights. Planes going to Ghana, Sierra-Leone or other African countries stopped over in Kano.
Sadly, the billionaire said things had been allowed to fall into ruins and northern Nigeria’s progress and development had suffered as a result.
What makes Dantata even more sad is how western economies have grown and their countries developed from resources derived from Africa.
“It is our resources they took to their own countries and developed them.
“They transported our farm produce, mineral resources and other natural resources to their own countries and developed them.
“When they colonised us, they ensured they placed their manpower above ours and prevented our people from taking appropriate actions that would have developed our countries.
“Take Kano for instance, before the coming of the white men, the people of Kano had a strong business and religious relationship with some Arab countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan.
“So, when the white men came, they found us practising Islam as our religion and engaged in many crafts and other businesses as ways of earning our living.
“It is not because I am from Kano, but at that time, in the whole of Nigeria, Kano was the most civilised city in the country, courtesy of our interactions with Arabs,” he said.
- Relationship between leaders and business class
As someone with both feet firmly planted in the business world, Alhaji Dantata has had great responsibilities entrusted to him by virtue of his success.
But he has found that the relationship between leaders and the business class has not always been premium, especially in his native Kano, where he feels the relationship between the two groups could have been stronger.
In his experience, this cordial relationship is necessary for the growth of a country, as he has witnessed in other places.
“From commerce you will get industries and people will have stability in doing their businesses, and leaders will have control over their subjects and develop the society at all levels,” he said.
He feels that Kano’s waning relevance in the national equation, gained from its significant history, is as a direct result of the weakening relationship between leaders and the business class.
“I don’t know where the problem lies. Is it on the part of the business class or the leaders?
“Our business class is not recognised by the authorities, except by name or request.
“The leaders only remember the business class when they need something from us.
“It shouldn’t be so if we really want things to go smoothly,” he said.
- A tango with politics
The world of business and politics often ends up intertwined.
And some businesspersons have ventured into fulltime politics, like US President Donald Trump and the late MKO Abiola of Nigeria.
Dantata does not consider himself a politician, but he once had a brush with politics.
He was a one-time member of the House of Representatives in Kaduna during the First Republic.
After the government was overthrown by the military, he returned to Kano and the late Audu Bako, the governor of Kano during the General Yakubu Gowon military administration, appointed him a commissioner in his cabinet.
He spoke proudly of the “laudable projects” they oversaw during their time in government, but after that, he felt he had had enough.
In the run-up to Second Republic, which produced the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari as president, Dantata recalled being approached by some notable people to contest for the position of president.
Other people, like the late Malam Aminu Kano, also appealed to him to contest for the governorship position of Kano State.
“My reason for rejecting these offers was simple.
“As a businessman with huge responsibilities, I believed Allah had already chosen a career for me, through which I would play my role in the progress of my state, country and humanity in general.
“So there was no point for me to join politics,” he said.
Throughout this chat, Alhaji Dantata would often expertly quote verses of the Qur’an, bits of hadiths or religious teachings to support his conclusions on some issues.
In this instance, he said, “Three people: a leader, Islamic scholar and a rich man have critical roles to play in the development of any society.
“Whoever among the three fails to discharge his responsibility according to the dictates of Allah will surely face the consequences of his actions in the hereafter, and whoever amongst them does his part appropriately will surely be rewarded by his creator.”
- Teaching his grandson how to use the brain
Alhaji Aminu Dantata has many children and grandchildren.
He shared one particularly resonant encounter with one of his grandchildren.
“I was discussing with one of my grandchildren while we were returning from the mosque; then he said to me, ‘Baba, it is high time you, the aged, allowed us (referring to himself and his contemporaries) to take over things because your brain is outdated and your time is up.
“‘You should, therefore, give us the chance to move ahead.’
“To be honest with you, I was shocked and touched by his statement, but I did not show it to him.
“I decided to correct him and change his perception.
“When we returned home, I briefed my wife (his grandmother) on what transpired between us.
“I told her that I wanted to show him that my brain was still working.
“So we agreed that anytime he approached her and demanded intervention, she should tell him to meet me one-on-one.
“After my discussion with his grandmother, I suspended all forms of jokes with him.
“Two days after, he observed that my relationship with him was no longer cordial, and on the third day, he rushed to his grandmother and informed her that I was not happy with him; and therefore, she should intervene.
“But she told him that she could not interfere since she was not a party to it from the beginning.
“One day, we were sitting in my living room with other members of my family and he brought the issue up again and said to me, ‘Baba, it appears you are not happy with me because of what I said to you the other day while we were returning from the mosque.
‘I want to tell you that my comments were nothing but a joke, the kind that exists between a grandfather and grandson.
‘I am very sorry if I offended you.’
“Then I said to him, ‘Have I ever joked with you? I wanted to allow you and your active brain to do whatever you want in your life since my own brain is not as active as yours.
“‘Please don’t ever think of me in your life anymore.’
“Imagine, the boy that I sent abroad for studies, built a house for, got a job and wife for would now tell me that my brain is inactive.
“It may interest you to know that the children of the rich have developed the habit of referring to their parents as treasurers, meaning that their fathers are keepers of the children’s wealth.
“This has been the trend among the children of the rich in the last 10 to 20 years.
“I used that opportunity of our gathering in my sitting room to teach him a great lesson in his life and changed his perception as well.
“So these are some of the problems we are facing in our society today. Most of our youths have these feelings.”
- Moral decadence among youths
As someone who has seen several generations and how times and people have changed, Alhaji Aminu Dantata is concerned by the morality level in today’s society.
According to the octogenarian, the culture of respecting the elders by the young is fast eroding, and unless this is addressed, it could lead the younger generation to serious problems in the future.
In their youth, he said they respected the elderly, irrespective of where they came from.
“I stand to be corrected; things are not moving as expected in our society because of the decline in honesty and sincerity among the Nigerian youth.
“And if things continue the way they are now, only God knows what the future of the unborn generation would be.
“The situation is getting worse on a daily basis,” he said.
The erosion of honesty bothers the billionaire as he had fond memories of his travels in the 1950s when he was a manager in Sokoto and had to travel to all the towns and villages in the province.
He said the level of honesty and trust in those days was often demonstrated when his car broke down along the road.
“Anytime I encountered such problems I would just inform the traditional ruler in the area that my car had developed a problem and I had money inside it.
“And the traditional ruler would assign someone to guard the car pending when a mechanic would come and repair it.
“I can confidently tell you that even if that car would spend three days or more, not a dime would miss from the money in it.
“The situation is not the same now,” he said.
Alhaji Dantata is concerned that the level of decadence and decline in moral values has reached a level that would leave those trying to fix things confused as they would not know where to start from.
“As a leader, people will approach you with different intentions, some good and bad.
“So, even if the leader has good intentions, what of the people around him? This is the problem,” he said.
Finding a solution to these problems, he believes, rests with the people, who must start thinking of changing their ways to build a better Nigeria.
According to him, honesty and patriotism must once again be the watchword.
With a special focus on the North, Dantata said a holistic approach of a combination of Islamic and western education should be considered.
Fighting decadence is a responsibility of all, especially the government, Islamic scholars, traditional rulers, the business class and community leaders, who he advised to come on board to salvage the country before it is too late.
“It has to start from our homes, schools, places of work and markets.
“It is quite unfortunate that good virtues are gradually going extinct, especially among our youth.
“And until we address this, we will never produce qualitative future leaders, and we will never get it right in our quest to cleanse our mess.
“The media also has a critical role to play in this regard.
“You have to sit up in discharging your responsibilities of educating, entertaining and enlightening the society.
“Media organisations have a greater role to play in restoring good virtues among the younger generation in the country.
“I must commend the management of Media Trust for fairness and balance in its reportage.
“I am urging the management of the company to focus its reportage on the restoration of good virtues among the Nigerian youth because as future leaders, our youths need to be morally sound.
“We have to do something to improve our system of education.
“If you assess the products of our universities today you would believe that we are breeding half-baked graduates.
“Most of them have the knowledge but do not have good virtues.
“What do you expect from such products?
“How do you expect them to bail us out from the mess we have found ourselves in?” He said.
- How to survive hyenas and make money
Alhaji Dantata is counted amongst the wealthiest men in the country today, but he had to scrounge for his money from a very young age and soon learnt that surviving in business also meant surviving a troubling encounter with a hyena in Daura.
As a young man he was not ashamed to engage in any productive work that would give him money.
“Anything you think a village man is doing to earn a living, I did it when I was young.
“I was into various local businesses to earn my living – water vending, selling or buying of farm produce etc,” he further said.
He often travelled to various villages and towns to buy groundnut and other farm produce.
One encounter during one of such trips has remained indelible on his mind. It was a night he had a brush with a hyena.
“There was a time I travelled to Daura town to buy some farm produce and it happened that the lodge booked for me to spend the night was a thatch-hut.
“After my business activities I retired to my hut.
“Later in the night I heard a strange movement of an animal around my hut.
“When I checked, I saw a hyena trying to penetrate the hut.
“I was very scared, but Allah, in his infinite mercy, prevented the animal from gaining access to my hut,” he also said.
Memories of that encounter also triggered another for the businessman; this time with a political enthusiast.
“That also reminds me of an encounter with a member of the defunct Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in Rogogo, a village in the present Bichi Local Government while I was there to conduct business.
“What happened was that the man went to the village for a political campaign and the day coincided with the market day in the village.
“I was in the market buying some farm produce from villagers when the man erected the NPC’s flag to signify that the party would conduct a political campaign.
“Unfortunately, people refused to pay attention to the politicians and focused on their businesses.
“The man thought I was the one who planned it; hence, he reported me to my father, saying I sponsored villagers who attacked them during a political campaign.
“My father sent for me and directed that I should be taken to Bichi to apologise to the then district head. I obliged.
“After I was done with the district head of Bichi, instead of the driver to take me back to Rogogo from where he picked me up, he took the road to Kano.
“When I inquired, he said that was the instruction from my father.
“On arrival, my father asked why I organised youths to attack the NPC men and I told him that I never did it.
“He warned that I should desist from interfering in NPC’s affairs.
“As a father, he also told me so many things about politics, politicians, leaders and life in general.
“I learnt a lot of lessons during our conversation that particular day,” Dantata said.
- Collapse of industries in the North
One of the things that bother the tycoon is the collapse of industries, not only in Kano State but in northern Nigeria.
He lamented the closure of hundreds of industries between Kano and Kaduna, which has cost hundreds of job losses.
He attributed the situation to the nonchalance of business owners.
He confirmed that he had shares in virtually all the industries that operated in the country and every company that has been operating in Kano or Kaduna over the last 20 years.
While most people his age would be thinking of resting on their laurels, Dantata said he had designs to reopen Fine Text Textile Company in Kaduna State, where he owned 87per cent shares.
He also has plans to invest in farming.
He said he was planning to cultivate his farm in Kura area, which covers over 5,000 hectares.
He is considering planting rice and maize to boost production of the crops in the state and provide jobs to many people.
At his age, Alhaji Dantata is taking his responsibility as a rich man very seriously and thinking of restarting new business ventures that would provide jobs for people and help the society.