Alhaji Alhassan Dantata
(1877-Aug 17th 1955). The wealthiest man in West Africa.
Alhaji Alhassan Dantata was a Nigerian businessman who was the wealthiest man in West Africa at the time of his death.
Ancestors and Heritage
Dantata’s father was Abdullahi, a man from the village of Danshayi, near Kano. Dantata was born in Bebeji in 1877, one of several children of Abdullahi and his wife, both of whom were traders and caravan leaders.
Bebeji was on the Kano to Gonja (now in northern Ghana) and Kano to Lagos routes. The people of Bebeji, at least those from the Zango (campsite) were great traders. Bebeji was considered a miniature Kano. There was a saying which went “If Kano has 10 kolas, Bebeji has 20 halves” or in Hausa: “Birni tana da goro goma, ke Bebeji kina da bari 20”.
The town attracted many people of different backgrounds in the 19th century, such as the Yorubas, Nupes, Agalawas, etc. It was controlled by the Sarki (chief) of Bebeji who was responsible for the protection of Kano from attack from the southwest.
Alhassan was born into an Agalawa trading family. His father was a wealthy trader and caravan leader; Madugu Abdullahi while his mother was also a trader of importance in her own right enjoying the title of Maduga – Amarya. Abdullahi, in his turn, was a son of another prosperous merchant, Baba Talatin. It was he who brought
the family from Katsina, probably at the beginning of the nineteenth century, following the death of his father, Ali.
Abdullahi already had a reputation of some wealth from his ventures with his father and therefore inherited his father’s position as a recognized and respected madugu. Like his father, he preferred the Nupe and Gonja routes. He specialized in the exchange of Kano dyed cloth, cattle, slaves and so on for the kola of the Akan forest. Surprisingly, he had added cowries brought to the coast by European traders to the items he carried back to Kano.
Abdullahi continued to operate from Madobi until 1877, one of our few fixed dates when having just set out for a journey to Gonja, his wife delivered in the Zango (campsite) of Bebeji. The child was a boy and after the usual seven days, he was named Alhassan. Abdullahi purchased a house in the town and left his nursing wife and child to await his return from Gonja. On his return, he decided to abandon Madobi and moved to Bebeji. Some say that the house that contains his tomb is still held by the family. The date of his death is unknown, but it was probably about 1885 when Alhassan was between seven and eight years of age. By then he had brothers and sisters – Shuaibu, Malam Jaji, Malam Bala, Malam Sidi and others.
The children were too young to succeed to their father’s position and to manage his considerable wealth. They all received their portion according to Islamic law. Maduga Amarya, like her mother in law, was a trader of wealth in her own right. Indeed she was known to be such a forceful character that nobody in the Zango would take her to wife. She therefore decided to leave the children in Bebeji, in the care of an old slave woman, while she moved to Accra where she became one of the wealthier Hausa traders.
The slave was known as “Tata” from which circumstance young Alhassan became known as Alhassan Dantata because of her role as his ‘mother’ (” Dantata” means “son of Tata”).
Alhassan was sent to a Qur’anic school (madrasah) in Bebeji and as his share of his father’s wealth (as so often happens), seemed to have vanished, he had to support himself. The life of the almajiri (Qur’anic student) is difficult, as he has to find food and clothing for himself and also for his malam (teacher) and at the same time read. Some simply beg while others seek paid work. Alhassan worked and even succeeded at the insistence of Tata in saving. His asusu, “money box” (a pottery vessel) purchased by Tata and set in the wall of the house can still be seen.
When he was about 15 years of age, Alhassan joined a Gonja bound caravan to see his mother. He purchased some items from Bebeji, sold half of them on the way and the rest in Accra. When he saw his mother, he was very delighted hoping she would allow him to live without doing any work since she was one of the wealthier local traders. After only a rest of one day, she took him to another malam and asked him to stay there until he was ready to return to Kano and he worked harder in Accra than he did in Bebeji. After the usual reading of the Qur’an, Alhassan Dantata had to go and beg for food for his malam, and himself. When he worked for money on Thursdays and Fridays, Alhassan Dantata would not be allowed to spend the money for himself alone, his malam always took the lion’s share (this is normal in Hausa society). After the visit, his mother sent him back to Bebeji where he continued his studies. Even though now a teenager, Tata continued to insist that he must save something everyday.
Upheavals and slavery
When he was still a teenager, great upheavals occurred in the Kano Emirate. This included the Kano Civil War (1893-1894) and the British invasion of the emirate. During the Kano Civil war, Alhassan and his brothers were captured and sold as slaves, but they were able to buy back their freedom and return to Bebeji shortly afterwards.
Alhassan remained in Bebeji until matters had settled down and the roads were secure, only then did he set out for Accra, by way of Ibadan and Lagos (Ikko) and then by sea to Accra and then to Kumasi, Sekondi and back to Lagos. Alhassan was one of the pioneers of this route. For several years, he carried his kola by sea, using steamers; to Lagos where he usually sold it to Kano bound merchants. By this time, he was relatively wealthy. In 1906, he began broadening his interests by trading in beads, necklaces, European cloth, etc. His mother, who had never remarried, died in Accra around 1908 and he thereafter generally restricted his operations to Lagos and Kano, although he continued to visit Accra.
Thus far in his career, with most of his fellow long distance traders, he continued to live in one of the towns some distance from Kano City, only visiting the Birni for business purposes. Before Alhassan settled in Kano permanently, he visited Kano City only occasionally to either purchase or sell his wares. He did not own a house there, but was satisfied with the accommodation given to him by his patoma (land lord.). It was during the time of the first British appointed Emir of Kano; Abbas (1903-1919) that Alhassan decided to establish a home in Kano. He purchased his first house in the Sarari area (an extension of Koki). At that time there were no houses from the house of Baban Jaki (at the end of Koki) up to Kofar Mazugal. In fact the area was called Sarari because it was empty and nobody wanted that land. Alhassan built his first house on that land and was able thereafter to extend it freely.
In 1912, when the Europeans started to show an interest in the export of groundnut, they contacted the already established Kano merchants through the Emir, Abbas and their chief agent, Adamu Jakada. Some established merchants of Kano like Umaru Sharubutu, Maikano Agogo and others were approached and accepted the offer.
Later in 1918, Alhassan was approached by the Niger Company to help purchase groundnuts for them. He was already familiar with the manner by which people made fortunes by buying cocoa for Europeans in the Gold Coast. He responded and participated in the enterprise with enthusiasm, he had several advantages over other Kano business men: he could speak some English because of his contact with the people on the coast, thus he could negotiate more directly with the European traders for better prices. He also had accumulated a large capital and unlike other established Kano merchants, had only a small family to maintain, as he was still a relatively young man. Alhassan had excellent financial management, was frugal and unostentatious. He knew some accounting and with the help of Alhaji Garba Maisikeli, his financial controller for 38 years, every kobo was accounted for every day. Not only that, Alhassan was hard working and always around to provide personal supervision of his workers. As soon as he entered the groundnut purchasing business, he came to dominate the field. In fact by 1922 he became the wealthiest businessman in Kano. Umaru Sharubutu and Maikano Agogo were relegated to the second and the third positions respectively. When the British Bank of West Africa was opened in Kano in 1929, he became the first Kano businessman to utilize a bank account when he deposited twenty camel loads of silver coins. Shortly before his death, he pointed to sixty “groundnut pyramids” in Kano and said, “These are all mine”.
Alhassan became the chief produce buyer especially of groundnuts for the Niger Company (later U.A.C). It is said that he used to purchase about half of all the nuts purchased by U.A.C in northern Nigeria. Because of this, he applied for a license to purchase and export groundnuts in 1940 just like the U.A.C. However, because of the great depression and the war situation, it was not granted. Even Saul Raccah lost his license to export and import about this time because he did not belong to the Association of West African Merchants. In 1953-4 he became a licensed buying agent (L.B.A) that is, a buyer who sells direct to the marketing board instead of to another firm. However, Alhassan had many business connections both in Nigeria and in other West African countries, particularly the Gold Coast. He dealt, not only in groundnuts, but also in other merchandise. He traded in cattle, kola, cloth, beads, precious stones, grains, rope and other things. His role in the purchase of kola nuts from forest areas of Nigeria for sale in the North was so great, that eventually whole “kola trains” from the Western Region were filled with his nuts alone.
When Alhassan finally settled in Kano, he maintained agents, mainly his relations, in other places. For instance Alhaji Bala, his brother, was sent to Lagos. Alhassan employed people, mainly Igbos and Yoruba’s and the indigenous Hausas, as wage earners. They worked as clerks, drivers, and labourers. Some of his employees, especially the Hausas, stayed in his house. He was responsible for their marriage expenses. They did not pay rent and in fact, were regarded as members of his extended family. He sometimes provided official houses to some of his workers.
People’s opinion of Alhassan Dantata differed. To some people, he was a mutumin kirki (complete gentleman) who was highly disciplined and made money through hard work and honesty. He always served as an enemy to, or a breaker of hoarding. For instance, he would purchase items, especially grains, during the harvest time, when it was abundant at low prices. He would wait until the rainy season, (July or august) when there was limited supply in the markets or when grain merchants started to inflate prices. He then moved to fill the markets with his surplus grains and asked a price lower than the current price in the markets by between 50 – 70%. In this way, he forced down prices. His anti- hoarding activities did not stop at grains and other consumer goods, but even to such items as faifai, igiya, babarma (Mat), dyed cloth, shuni, potash, and so on. However on the other hand, according to information collected in Koki, Dala, Qul-qul, Madabo, Yan Maruci e.t.c Alhassan was viewed as a mugun mutum (wicked person). This was because some people expressed the view that Dantata undercut their prices simply to cripple his fellow merchants.
He founded, with other merchants (attajirai), the Kano Citizens’ Trading Company, for industrial undertakings. In 1949, he contributed property valued at ₤10,200 (ten thousand, two hundred pounds) to the proposed Kano citizens trading company for the establishment of the first indigenous textile mill in Northern Nigeria. Near the end of his life he was appointed a director of the Railway Corporation.
He started to acquire urban land as early as 1917 in the non- European trading site (Syrian quarters) when he acquired two plots at an annual fee of ₤20. All his houses were occupied by his own people; relations, sons, servants, workers and so on. He never built a hotel for whatever purpose in his life and advised his children to do like wise. His numerous large warehouses in and around Kano metropolis were not for rent, rather he kept his own wares in them.
Business with women
Because of his Islamic beliefs, Alhassan never transacted business with a woman of whatever age. His wife, Hajiya Umma Zaria, (mother of Aminu) was his chief agent among the women folk. The women did not have to visit her house. She established agents all over Kano city and visited them in turn. When she visited her agents, it was the duty of the agents to ask what the women in the ward wanted. Amina Umma Zaria would then leave the items for them. All her agents were old married women and she warned her agents to desist from conducting business with newly wedded girls. Umma Zaria dealt in the smallest household items, which would cost 2.5 d to sophisticated jewels worth thousands of pounds.
The manners of Alhassan Dantata
Though Alhassan became the wealthiest man in the British West African colonies, he lived a simple life. He fed on the same foodstuffs as any other individual, such as tuwon dawa da furar gero. He dressed simply in a white gown, a pair of white trousers (da itori), and underwear (yar ciki), a pair of ordinary local sandals, and sewn white cap, white turban and occasionally a malfa (local hat). He was said never to own more than three sets of personal clothing at a time. He never stayed inside his house all day and was always out doing something. He moved about among his workers joking with them, encouraging and occasionally giving a helping hand. He ate his meal outside and always with his senior workers like Garba Maisikeli and Alhaji Mustapha Adakawa. Alhassan met fully established wealthy Kano merchants when he moved to Kano from the Kauye, like Maikano Agogo, Umaru Sharubutu, Salga and so on. He lived with them peacefully and always respected them. Occasionally he visited the senior of them all Umaru Sharubutu to greet him. The eldest son of Umaru Sharubutu became an important employee in his commercial enterprise. He avoided clashes with other influential people in Kano. He hated court litigation. He was in court only once, but before the final judgment the case was settled outside a Lagos court (it was a ₤10,000 civil suit instituted by one Haruna against him). He lived peacefully with the local authorities. Whenever he offended the authorities he would go quietly to solve the problems with the official concerned.
Alhassan enjoyed good health and was never totally indisposed throughout his active life. However, occasionally he might develop malaria fever and whenever he was sick, he would go to the S.I.M clinic for treatment. Because of his simple eating habits, ordinary Hausa food two or three times a day and his always active mode of life, he never developed obesity. He remained slim and strong throughout his life. Alhassan had no physical defects and enjoyed good eye sight.
Alhassan was a devout Muslim. He was one of the first northerners to visit Mecca via England by mail boat in the early 1920’s. He loved reading the Qur’an and Hadith. He had a personal mosque in his house and established a qur’anic school for his children. He maintained a full time Islamic scholar called Alhaji Abubakar (father of Malam Lawan Kalarawi, a renowned Kano public preacher).
He paid zakkat annually according to Islamic injunction and gave alms to the poor every Friday. He belonged to the Qadiriyya brotherhood.
Pilgrimage and presentation to the King
Soon after the First World War he went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, via Britain, where he was presented to King George V.
Alhassan Dantata respected people with qur’anic and other branches of Islamic learning, and helped them occasionally. He established a qur’anic school for his children and other people of the neighbourhood. He insisted that all his children must be well educated in the Islamic way. He appreciated also, functional western education, just enough to transact business (some arithmetic, simple accounting, Hausa reading and writing and spoken English).
Alhassan backed the establishment of a western style school in the Dala area for Hausas (i.e. non-Fulani) traders’ children in the 1930’s. The existence of a school in Bebeji (the only non-district headquarters in Kano to have one in the 1930’s) was probably due to his influence, although he could neither read nor write English. Alhassan could write beautiful Ajami, but could not speak or write Arabic, although he could read the Qur’an and other religious books with ease (this is very common in Hausa society). Most of the qur’anic reciter’s could read very well, but could not understand Arabic. Alhassan Dantata knew some arithmetic-addition and subtraction and could use a ready reckoner. He also encouraged his children to learn enough western education to transact business, the need of his time. He established his own Arabic and English school in 1944, Dantata Arabic and English school.
He never became a politician in the true sense of the term. However, because of his enormous wealth, he was always very close to the government. He had to be in both the colonial government’s good books and maintain a position very close to the emirs of Kano. He was nominated to represent commoners in the reformed local administration of Kano and in 1950 was made a councillor in the emir’s council- the first non- royal individual to have a seat at the council. Other members of the council then were: Madakin Kano, Alhaji Muhammadu Inuwa, Walin Kano, Malam Abubakar Tsangaya, Sarkin Shanu, Alhaji Muhammadu Sani, Wazirin Kano Alhaji Abubakar, Makaman Kano Alhaji Bello Alhaji Usman Gwarzo, and the leader Alhaji Abdulllahi Bayero. Alhassan therefore was a member of the highest governing body of Kano in his time. He was also appointed to mediate between NEPU and NPC in Kano in 1954 together with Mallam Nasiru Kabara and other members. He joined no political party, but it is clear that he sympathised with the NPC.
In 1955, Alhassan fell ill and because of the seriousness of the illness, he summoned his chief financial controller, Garba Maisikeli and his children. He told them that his days were approaching their end and advised them to live together. He was particularly concerned about the company he had established (Alhassan Dantata & Son’s). He asked them not to allow the company to collapse. He implored them to continue to marry within the family as much as possible. He urged them to avoid clashes with other wealthy Kano merchants. They should take care of their relatives, especially the poor among them. Three days later he passed away in his sleep on Wednesday 17th august, 1955. He was buried the same day in his house in Sarari ward, Kano. When he died in August 1955, he was the wealthiest man of any race in West Africa.
It was and is rare for business organizations to survive the death of their founders in Hausa society. Hausa tradition is full of stories of former successful business families who later lost everything. In Kano city alone names like: Kundila of Makwarari, the wealthiest man at the end of nineteenth century, Maikano Agogo of Koki Ward, Umaru Sharubutu also of Koki Ward, Baban Jaji, Abdu Sarki of Zaitawa Ward, Madugu Indo of Adakawa, and others too numerous to mention here, were some of them. The question is, why this sorry state of affairs?
M.G Smith suggested that three reasons were responsible as follows: the amount of money spent by the wealthy Hausa man on religious and social obligations was so great that only large fortunes could survive. Secondly, he was, after the introduction of the colonial economy, dependent for credit facilities on good relations with expatriate firms and stable groups of reliable agents and thirdly, under Islamic law, his estate was subdivided on inheritance.
He further suggested that only Alhassan of Kano was likely to leave able heirs to continue his business in a grand way. This observation was made in 1949 before Alhassan’s death. The reasons for this, Smith argued, was that his heirs were interested in keeping the family name going and the employment of modern methods of book keeping, the only local merchant to do so at that time. Another observer, Tahir (1919-75) has the opinion that business ventures in Hausa society often collapsed upon the death or retirement of the founder because the heirs were not trained before the death or retirement of the founder. Alhassan Dantata’s entire estate was subdivided according to Islamic law among the eighteen children who survived him. Alhassan’s descendants include Dr Aminu Dantata (son), Sanusi Dantata (son), Abdulkadir Sanusi Dantata (grandson), Dr Mariya Sanusi Dangote (granddaughter), Alhaji Aliko Dangote (great-grandson), Alhaji Tajudeen Aminu Dantata (great-grandson) and Alhaji Sayyu Dantata (great-great grandson).