Alhassan Dantata was a Northern Nigerian trader. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest man in West Africa.
Dantata was born into an Agalawa trading family in Bebeji in present-day Kano State in 1877. His parents were caravan leaders and traders. His father, Abdullahi, was a son of a prosperous merchant called Baba Talatin who had originally moved the family from Katsina in the early nineteenth century. His mother, Fatima Maduga Amarya, was also an independent caravan leader. She had the reputation of having such a forceful character that nobody in the Zango would take her as a wife after the demise of her husband. She decided to leave her children in the care of an old female servant and moved to Gonja in Accra, Ghana where she became one of the wealthiest Hausa traders. The servant, whose name was Tata, was the reason young Alhassan became known as Dantata ("Dan-tata" means "son of Tata" in the Hausa language).
Dantata was sent to a Qur’anic school (madrasah) in Bebeji. Because his share of his father’s wealth seemed to have vanished, he had to support himself. Although the life of an almajiri (Qur’anic student) was (and is) a difficult one, he was able to save some money, largely at the insistence of Tata, who purchased an asusu (ceramic money box) for him.
At fifteen, Dantata joined a Gonja-bound caravan in order to see his mother with hopes that her wealth would allow him to settle in Accra without having to work. He purchased some items from Bebeji, half of which he sold on the road and the remainder in Accra. After only one day of rest, Dantata’s mother took him to a Muslim teacher and asked him to stay with him until he was ready to return to Kano. He was forced to work even harder in Accra than he did in Bebeji. After the usual reading of the Qur’an, he had to go and beg for food for himself and his teacher. On Thursdays and Fridays he worked for money, but he had to share the greater part of his income with his teacher. After less than a year, his mother sent him back to Bebeji where he continued his studies. Even though now a teenager, Dantata continued to save something every day.
Kano Civil War and Slavery
Dantata was only sixteen when the 1893 civil war broke out in Kano. A group of dissidents from Kano sacked the town of Bebeji. Many of the town’s inhabitants were killed and the rest were captured, including Dantata and two of his brothers (Bala and Sidi). They were able to buy their freedom back and return to Bebeji shortly afterwards. He witnessed yet another upheaval when the British attacked the region shortly after the turn of the century. He was in Bebeji when the British crossed the border from Zaria on February 1, 1903. In the attack on Bebeji, the town leader was killed along with a number of his troops.
Dantata remained in Bebeji until some degree of normalcy returned and the roads became secure once again. He set out for Accra again via lbadan and Lagos, travelling to the Gold Coast by sea and eventually becoming one of the first northern traders to exploit these routes commercially. For several years he utilized coastal steamers to transport his kola nuts to Lagos where he resold them to Kano-bound traders and began to amass considerable wealth. In 1906, he began to diversify his interests by trading in beads, necklaces, European cloth and other items and was able to buy a house in the Koki ward of Kano. His mother, who had never remarried, died in Accra around 1908, at which time Dantata began to limit his trade to Lagos and Kano, although he still occasionally visited Accra. He married Hajiya Umma Zaria and she conducted business for him with women (he refrained from doing so for religious reasons).
In 1912 when the Europeans started to show an interest in the export of groundnuts, they contacted established merchants through the first British appointed Emir of Kano, Abbas (1903-1919) and his chief agent, Jakada. Established merchants such as Umaru Sharubutu and Maikano Agogo were approached and all readily accepted the offer.
In 1918, Dantata was approached by the UK-based Royal Niger Company (RNC) to help purchase groundnuts for them and he responded to their offer. He was already familiar with stories of people who had made fortunes by buying cocoa for the Europeans in the Gold Coast. Because of the speed with which he responded to the invitation of the RNC, he gained several advantages over rival Kano traders. In addition, his mastery of English (achieved through his trade in the south and along the coast) helped him in negotiations, as well as the fact that he had also accumulated a greater amount of capital than many other Kano merchants. Furthermore, unlike many of his peers, he had a relatively small family to maintain, largely because he was still younger than other traders of similar means. His early life had instilled in him a flair for financial management as well as a tendency towards leading a frugal existence. He had some accounting skills and with the help of Alhaji Garba Maisikeli (his financial controller for thirty-eight years), every kobo was accounted for every day. Dantata was also a careful manager who directly supervised his workers.
Within a short time of entering the groundnut business, Dantata came to dominate the field. By 1922 he had become the wealthiest business executive in Kano, pushing his contemporaries Umaru Sharubutu and Agogo to second and third place respectively. When the British Bank of West Africa opened a branch in Kano in 1929, he became the first Kano businessperson to open a bank account in which he deposited twenty camel-loads of silver coins.
In the last decade of his life, Dantata became the chief buyer of groundnuts for the Royal Niger Company (known at this time as the United Africa Company following a merger with the African and Eastern Trade Corporation). He alone purchased about half of all the groundnuts secured by UAC in northern Nigeria. In 1932, he applied for a licence to purchase and export groundnuts on his own. However, because of the lingering world depression and the conflict in Europe, it was not granted. In 1949, he contributed property valued at £10,200 to the proposed Kano Citizens Trading Company for the establishment of the first indigenous textile mill in northern Nigeria.
Between 1953 and 1954, he was a licensed buying agent who sold directly to the commodity board instead of to another firm. By this time, Dantata had many business connections both in Nigeria and in other West African countries, particularly the Gold Coast (now Ghana). He dealt other merchandise, including cattle, cloth, beads, precious stones, grains and rope. 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.
After finally settling in Kano, he maintained agents (mainly his relations) in other trading centers; his brother, Alhaji Bala, was in charge of his Lagos office. Dantata employed many people (mainly Hausas, Yorubas and Igbos) as drivers, clerks, and labourers. In some ways, his employees were treated as members of his extended family. Some lived in his own houses (especially the Hausa workers) and he frequently took responsibility for his workers’ marriage expenses.
Despite his great wealth, Dantata lived a simple lifestyle; eating the same foods and dressing like everyone else. He worked closely with his employees and frequently shared his meals with them. Dantata reportedly sought to avoid any conflict with individuals or with the authorities. Whenever he offended those in power he would quietly solve the problem with the official concerned.
Dantata was one of the first northern Nigerians to visit Mecca by mailboat (via England) in the early 1920s. He built 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 (the father of Mallam Lawan Kalarawi, a public preacher based in Kano). He paid zakkat(obligatory alms) annually and belonged to the Qadariyya brotherhood. Because of his beliefs, his bank account did not earn any interest.
His wife was his chief agent for trading with other women. Women did not need to visit her house as she established agents all over Kano City and visited them in turn. Hajiya Umma Zaria expected her agents – older married women – to know the requests of her customers, everything from the smallest household items to sophisticated jewellery worth thousands of pounds.
Among Dantata's sons were Mamuda, founder of the West African Pilgrims Association and a currency trader; Sanusi, a successful businessman; Ahmadu, a politician; and Aminu, a businessman. Aliko Dangote, the richest black man in the world is his great-grandson.
Dantata fell ill in 1955. Because of the gravity of this sickness, he summoned together his children and his chief financial controller, Garba Maisikeli. He told them that his days were approaching their end and that they should remain united. He was particularly concerned that the company he had established, Alhassan Dantata and Sons, should not be allowed to collapse. He implored them to marry within the family as much as possible, avoid needless clashes with other Kano merchants and take care of their relatives, especially the poor among them. Three days later, on Wednesday, August 17, 1955, he passed away in his sleep. He was buried the same day in his house in the Sarari ward of Kano.
- Forrest, Tom (1994). The Advance of African Capital: The Growth of Nigerian Private Enterprise. Edinburgh University Press. p. 206.
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Picture source: Abiyamo