Last man standing: Alhaji Aminu Dantata @ 90, by Munzali Dantata
Aminu Dantata was one of eighteen surviving descendants of Alhassan Dantata when I was growing up in the 1960s. Most of them lived on the same street their father founded around 1910 when he moved to Kano from the Gold Coast, following the burgeoning peanut trade in Nigeria. The mile-long Sarari Street was lined with warehouses on both sides of the road, with a few residential houses sandwiched in between.
The first house belonged to Alhassan. Her children’s homes followed, including that of my late father – Ahmadu Dantata; my uncle and adoptive father – Aminu Dantata, who adopted me after my father died in 1960; as well as Sanusi Dantata, Aliko Dangote’s maternal grandfather, who adopted Aliko after her father’s death in 1965.
The warehouses on Sarari Street and the adjacent alleys in the Sarari district have been demolished over the years to pave the way for more homes as the Dantata family grew. My house is now on land where a warehouse used to be when I was a child. The warehouse was demolished in 1988 to make room for my house, in keeping with family tradition.
Nigeria was the world’s largest exporter of peanuts. Kano was the epicenter of the peanut trade in Nigeria and the peanut pyramids the phenomenal trademark. At its peak in the 1930s, groundnuts were Nigeria’s main export. The image of the peanut pyramid – on Nigerian currency, postage stamps and postcards – was also the iconic symbol of Nigeria’s agricultural wealth, when Nigeria was a net exporter of agricultural products.
The big three – cocoa, palm products and peanuts, accounted for over 70 percent of Nigeria’s exports. The Kano-Lagos rail, opened in 1912, was the first transnational rail in Nigeria, purposefully built to transport exports from the north to Lagos. Construction of Apapa Port, which began earlier than Kano Rail, was the colonial administration’s first infrastructure project in Nigeria, designed as a terminus for the Kano Railroad to Lagos. Nigeria was the story of two cities, with Lagos as the hub for goods from southern Nigeria to the port of Apapa by truck, and Kano as the hub for northern Nigeria, receiving goods by trucks from the north for transshipment by rail to Lagos. This arrangement lasted ten years before the railway was extended to Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos and other newly built stations across the country.
“The Last Man Standing” is a tribute to Aminu Dantata as he turns 90, as well as a tribute to his generation who participated in the phenomenal exports of colonial Nigeria and the 1960s.
Baba Aminu joined the family business in 1948 after leaving school and was assigned to Argungu as a dan-gyada (peanut buying agent). He was promoted to District Manager of Sokoto Province from Alhassan Dantata and Sons Limited, before finally running the company in 1960. Alhassan Dantata and Sons Ltd supplied so many peanuts to the Nigerian Railway Corporation that it is became the only indigenous company to have obtained a private railway coating. ; a privilege enjoyed by European companies. The sidings connected the compounds of major exporters to the main railway network for trains to enter and retrieve cargo directly from their warehouses. A family’s domination of the peanut trade in Nigeria continued after the Patriarch’s death.
Two brothers – Aminu Dantata and Sanusi Dantata – until the 1960s and 1970s, between them provided more than half of the annual peanut purchases of the Northern Nigeria Marketing Board, the government agency mandated to purchase peanuts, cotton and other products for export.
The peanut pyramid was the invention of the merchants of Kano. It all started as a stopover for peanut storage when a busy Kano station – in its second year of operation – shut down at peanuts in 1912. The weekly train to Lagos could no longer accommodate peanuts. European companies have stopped accepting peanuts with warehouses full to the brim. More and more peanuts were pouring into the city as the harvest season was just beginning. Unlike the annual torrential rain that Kano was used to, the ancient city was not prepared for the sudden downpour of peanuts. Kano merchants, rather than returning the precious nut when European companies stopped buying, continued to accept supplies from the farms. They resorted to piling bags of peanuts in piles, in front of their homes and in the streets of Kano. They called the heap “Dalar Gyada”, Groundnut Hill in the local language. The colonial administration stepped in to create an official standard for the heap – defining its length, width, height, and number of bags – and officially named it “Peanut Pyramid” after its pyramidal shape.
My generation may be the last to see the Peanut Pyramids, buried in the dust of Nigerian history. Growing up in the 1960s, we played around the peanut pyramids that adorned the Kano landscape as the city’s main economic and tourism icons. Placing the last bag on top of the pyramid was the most interesting aspect of the pyramid. It was difficult and dangerous, requiring both strength and cunning. A slip could cause the worker and the heavy bag to fall to the ground. “Buhun karshe” was always placed with pomp and ceremony, watched by huge crowds of spectators, including the owner of the pyramid and guests. Drummers and praise singers urged the worker as he cautiously climbed his way with a sack on his head. As soon as he got off, a prize awaited him, usually a bicycle for him and some cloth for his wife. Dapge was Alhassan’s expert, enjoying the rare privilege of placing Alhassan’s last bag. I never saw Dapge in action as he was a frail old man from Sarari Street when I met him in the 1960s.
Newly independent Nigeria was a big construction site in the 1960s, reminiscent of a developing country. This prompted Baba to venture into the construction business. He got his big break in 1962, a contract to build the former Nigerian Defense Academy complex in the town of Kaduna. We were crossing Kaduna to Kano from Abuja one day in 1991 when Baba pointed out the NDA buildings with pride and told us that he had built the complex, worth half a million pounds, the largest construction contract ever awarded to a native contractor at the time. His second big break, he said, came two years later, in 1964, by building the School of Aviation complex in Zaria, which consolidated its position as a market leader in the industry. construction.
Baba was appointed commissioner in the newly established state of Kano in 1967. He served for five years before leaving in 1973 to return to his company. By then, Nigeria’s business landscape had radically changed from an export-driven economy to an import-driven economy, supported by a single export: crude oil. The ground pyramids had vanished from the Kano landscape, I was about to graduate from high school, and the Dantata organization was making its debut.
NAMCO (Northern Amalgamated Marketing Company Ltd) was a major importer and wholesale distributor of essential commodities such as rice, sugar and fertilizers. Dantata Motors Ltd had a Mercedes Benz dealership which imported sedans from Germany. Main Line Transport Ltd – a transport company, imported Hino Motors trucks from Japan and was Hino’s biggest African customer in the 1980s.
They and many others were subsidiaries of Dantata Organization. The group has also invested in companies outside its fold, particularly in the manufacturing sector, such as the Flour Mills of Nigeria, manufacturers of Golden Penny products. Dantata Organization also ventured into the downstream petroleum industry in the 1990s with Express Petroleum & Gas Company Ltd.
I never met my grandfather, Alhassan Dantata. He died in 1955, two years before I was born. I hardly know my biological father, Ahmadu Dantata. He died in 1960 when I was barely three years old, three months before the independence of Nigeria. Both were gladiators from colonial times.
My adoptive father, Aminu Dantata, is a gladiator from colonial and independent Nigeria. Born in 1931, he embodies the old and the new Nigeria. He has seen it all. He was born a British subject and leaves as a Nigerian citizen. An entrepreneur par excellence, he successfully participated in two diametrically opposed trade regimes – the economies of the British Colony of Nigeria and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As the British focused on exporting the raw materials that greased the machinery of industrial Europe, subsequent Nigerian governments developed industrialization programs, with varying success, to boost local production and satisfy consumers. needs of a teeming population.
As Baba Aminu reaches the enviable age of 90, he is the sole survivor of Alhassan’s children – uncles and aunts I grew up with. We thank Allah for Baba’s long life. Allah knows best why he kept him alive, outliving his father and over thirty siblings as the last man standing.
Munzali Dantata is a businessman from Kano