African billionaires: big money on a poor continent

African billionaires now number 55, including Nigeria's Folorunsho Alakija, the world's wealthiest black woman, says business magazine. 

Sunday Alamba/AP
Aliko Dangote, said to be Africa's richest man, attends a function in Lagos, Nigeria, Feb. 21, 2013.
AP
Folorunsho Alakija attends a function in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 5, 2013. Alakija is the world's wealthiest black woman, beating out Oprah Winfrey.

Last spring, one interview had Nigerians around the world howling with laughter, writing songs, coining jokes, and making T-shirts and video parodies.

Why?

A government official had appeared on one of the Nigeria’s most popular morning news shows and referred question after question to his “Oga at the top,” meaning the Big Man, his boss.
 
Why was the interview funny enough to warrant hundreds of thousands of YouTube views?

Because it reflected what many people here believe to be true: Africa is a continent ruled by Big Men. And as a recent report in the African business magazine Ventures suggests, the biggest of the big money men among us are even bigger than we thought.

There are 55 billionaires on this continent, according to the magazine, with a combined total net worth of nearly $144 billion.

Among these biggies are also three women, including Folorunsho Alakija, a Nigerian oil mogul who the magazine says has beat out Oprah Winfrey for the richest black woman in the world. She's worth $7.3 billion.

No less than 10 African countries boast billionaires, the report says. But Nigeria leads the way with 20, more than twice as many as any other nation here.

In its 2013 list of billionaires, by contrast, Forbes magazine recognizes only two Nigerians.

Oladotun Olumuyiwa Fadeyiye, a 30-year-old entrepreneur in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, says resources like oil and minerals make the country a natural place for the ambitious to get rich. But access to resources doesn’t account for all the success.

“An average Nigerian businessperson has tenacity. They never say die,” he says. “The courage to succeed in difficult terrain is always there.”

The extreme wealth demonstrated in the Ventures report, however, may be more indicative of Nigeria’s economic failures than of its successes, as Clement Nwankwo, the director the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, argues.

“If you put side by side the fact that you have 20 billionaires and that poverty conditions are worsening,” he says, “It tells you that the economic situation is not improving.  It should be that the middle class is growing so you have an increased global reach and then more billionaires.”

Mr. Nwankwo blames the rising disparity between the rich and the poor in Nigeria on corruption. The super rich, he says, regularly pay government officials to manipulate public policies in their favor.

Watchdog group Transparency International lists Nigeria as the 37th most corrupt country in the world.

Public views on corruption are related to Nigerian culture, which, while often mocking "big men," also usually reveres them, Nwankwo adds.

The government official that made such a splash last spring is for deferring to the big man is now popularly known as “the Oga at the top guy.”

When the Ventures report was released earlier this week, one local website wrote about Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian manufacturer who is listed as the richest man in Africa, worth over $20 billion, which is $4 billion more than the Forbes estimate.

The headline: "Aliko Dangote is Still the #OgaattheTop as Ventures Africa lists the Top 55 African Billionaires."

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