This feature is part of Blavity’s African Spotlight series, which highlights heads of state, as well as other politicians and societal leaders, who are currently in power or influencing change on the continent. African leaders are making significant impacts both in their own countries and internationally. Growing diasporas and increasing interconnectivity make developments on the continent more relevant to Black America and people everywhere than ever before.

The list of Black billionaires is small but growing. A couple of the people in this exclusive club are well-known individuals from the worlds of sports or entertainment, such as Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey. Others might name Black businessmen Robert Smith or David Steward. Kanye West, who recently made the list, has sometimes been mistakenly reported as the richest Black man in America. But recently, Nigerian DJ Cuppy went on Twitter to set the record straight concerning who’s at the very top of the Black billionaire list.

“I am a HUGE @KanyeWest fan,” Cuppy wrote on Twitter in January. “However with ALL due respect, I feel the need to remind him that he is not the “richest black man” — it is in fact my Godfather @AlikoDangote.

Cuppy's godfather is 64-year-old Aliko Dangote, a name that most Americans have never heard. Dangote, and the company that bears his name, are much better known in his home country, Nigeria, and across Africa. Over several decades, the Dangote Group has grown to be one of the largest companies on the continent, and it’s made its founder, Aliko Dangote, the richest Black person in the world.

Hailing from a wealthy family, Dangote cemented a business empire of his own.

As detailed in a profile in Time magazine, Dangote was born into a prominent trading family in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. Dangote went into business for himself in the 1970s, importing household food products and packing materials. With a loan from his grandfather, Dangote pivoted his company to manufacturing goods locally, making everything from cement to tomato paste.

While tomato paste may be popular, cement built Dangote’s company into an economic powerhouse. The company is now the largest cement producer in Africa, operating plants in 10 countries, including Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania.

Part of the Dangote Group’s success has been its diversification — spreading its investments across many different industries. As the Time profile describes it, “Dangote approached every industry with a ‘build it and they will buy’ idealism.” That approach has led Dangote to move into a variety of new industries with the potential to significantly improve Nigeria’s economy and add to Dangote’s massive wealth. One of Dangote’s companies has entered into a partnership with French automaker Peugeot to manufacture cars in Nigeria. A huge soccer fan, Dangote has often stated his dream to purchase Arsenal Football Club, one of England’s top soccer teams. But he said that he has too many other commitments to make moves on the team just yet.

Perhaps surprisingly, Nigeria’s wealthiest man has only recently entered the country’s largest industry. Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the 11th largest oil producer in the world; oil accounts for 90% of the country’s exports. However, Nigeria does not have enough refineries to process its own oil and thus has to import refined fuel from abroad. Seeing a huge opportunity, Dangote is building a massive $18 billion oil refinery that is expected to come online by the end of the year. Once fully operational, Dangote’s new refinery is expected to process enough oil to meet Nigeria’s energy needs without having to import fuel from other countries.

Dangote built a network of elite connections across Nigeria.

While Dangote’s business acumen, work ethic and family legacy all played roles in his success, the businessman has also made important political connections along the way. In 2003, he used his wealth to contribute to the presidential campaigns of Olusegun Obasanjo, who led Nigeria from 1999-2007 as the country’s first democratically elected president in decades. Despite being from different communities — Dangote is a Muslim from the northern Hausa ethnic group and Obasanjo a southern Yoruba Christian, in a country where ethnicity, region and religion are the main sources of political divides — the two men cooperated closely. In exchange for Dangote’s financial support, Obasanjo protected the domestic cement industry from foreign competition, allowing Dangote Cement to grow even larger.

Dangote’s connection to political power hit a low point during the administration of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who led Nigeria from 2007 until his death in 2010 after a long period of illness. The two men clashed over business policy, with Yar’Adua supporting more cement imports from abroad, while Dangote wished to maintain his local monopoly on the cement industry. The clash between the two men also had a distinct personal dimension, as Dangote was reportedly in a relationship with Yar’Adua’s daughter, Aisha, until she rejected his marriage proposal.

Despite this hiccup, Dangote is again well connected within Nigeria’s political sphere. When his younger brother Sani, who was also vice president of the Dangote Group, died in November, condolences poured in from Nigeria’s political elite, including President Muhammadu Buhari.

Dangote’s association with the political elite has not always been popular among the Nigerian population. When the #EndSARS protests against police brutality rocked Nigeria in 2020, the Dangote company found itself at odds with protesters. Several Dangote trucks were burned by demonstrators after one of the company’s trucks broke through a protestor-erected barricade, striking and killing one person in the process. As the movement grew into a more general protest against corruption and mismanagement among Nigerian authorities, some criticized the Dangote company for contributing to high prices within Nigeria.

Dangote has amassed rich and powerful friends but remains married to his work.

Dangote is friends with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Blair’s wife, Cherie, holds the role as the non-executive director in Dangote’s cement company. In 2019, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Dangote had donated $5 million toward the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Other prominent Americans are also friendly with the Nigerian billionaire. When Dangote’s youngest daughter Fatima got married in 2018, a host of celebrities and dignitaries attended the lavish ceremonies, including Femi Otedola — Nigeria’s second-richest person and the father of Dangote’s goddaughter, DJ Cuppy — and American billionaire Bill Gates, among other guests. 

Expensive wedding ceremonies notwithstanding, Dangote has not lived an especially flashy public life. His wealth and status have led to constant rumors and speculation about his personal life. Besides his romance with Aisha Yar’Adua, Dangote is believed to have been married and divorced at least twice, and he has three adult daughters, Halima, Mariya and Fatima, though rumors of additional wives, girlfriends and children are constant fodder for Nigerian tabloid media. Speaking on his personal life in a 2018 interview with the Financial Times, Dangote indicated that he would like to marry again now that he is getting older, but added that his business ventures get in the way of romance. “It doesn’t make sense to go out and get somebody if you don’t have the time,” he said.

Though it remains to be seen whether Dangote will eventually slow down to find a new wife, the Nigerian mogul seems committed to devoting the bulk of his time and energy to growing his already giant business empire while potentially solving some of Nigeria’s most pressing economic concerns in the process.