Al Hassan Dantata: The richest man in West Africa in the 50’s

Famous Zainab Sulaimon
Al Hassan Dantata

Dantata was a man whose life, at some point, fluctuated between having everything and having absolutely nothing. He was raised in a wealthy family before he became a slave and then worked his way, in a beautiful way, to becoming the richest man in West Africa. Let us take a look at his life and how he achieved this success despite the odds against him.

Life and Times of Dantata

Al Hassan Dantata was born in 1877 in Bebeji, Kano, Nigeria. His father, Abdullahi, and his mother, Amarya, were both wealthy merchants who belonged to the Agalawa clan). He attended Quranic school in Bebeji. After his father passed away, his wealth was distributed accordingly. His mother left for the Gold Coast (Ghana) to continue trading and was forced to leave behind her children in the care of an old slave woman known as “Tata”. Al Hassan, as a teenager, became known as Al Hassan Dantata (“Dantata” means “son of Tata”) because of the role of a mother which Tata played in his life. After his share of his father’s wealth finished, he took up the responsibility of feeding and clothing himself. Instead of begging like the other students (this is believed to be the custom of some students learning the Qur’an in some parts of the North at that time), Dantata decided to work. On the insistence of Tata, he saved some part of his earnings.

In 1893, the dispute between two claimants to the title of Emir resulted in a civil war in the Kano Emirate (after the death of the Emir, Muhammad Bello) and it lasted till 1895. During this time, properties (of the Agalawa clan who were in support of Tukur – one of the claimants) were seized, some were confiscated and lands were taken away from landowners. Al Hassan Dantata was captured as a slave and wasn’t released until 1894 as a result of hard work.

Dantata left to see his wealthy mother in Ghana, hoping that she would accommodate him and find him a trade amongst the Agalawa community on the Gold Coast. But that wasn’t the case as she asked Dantata to stay with a mallam till he was ready to return to Bebeji. He began to trade in European cloth, beads, and necklaces. Following the death of his mother in 1908, he focused his attention to trading in Lagos and Kano. After his return to Bebeji, Dantata was able to build his first house when the lands were successfully returned to his family. He married Ummu Zaria and she conducted business for him with the women of Zaria.

The lifestyle of Al Hassan Dantata

Dantata was hardworking and led a very simple life. It was said he never own more than three pairs of clothing at a time. He always dressed in a white gown, trousers, a pair of local sandals, and a white cap and turban. He ate the same food just as any other would and ate with his senior workers. He was a devout Muslim, he loved to read the Qur’an and hadith, he had a mosque in his house and he built a Quranic school for his children. Also, he paid his annual zakat and gave sadaqah every Friday. He was rarely indoors and always stayed with his workers outside, occasionally lending them a hand. His simple eating habits allowed him to maintain a proper weight, hence he remained slim and strong throughout his lifetime.

The Groundnut Pyramids

The groundnut pyramids are structures made from groundnut sacks, in the form of pyramids. Each pyramid was made up of nothing less than 15,000 full bags of groundnut and was built in Northern Nigeria cities like Kano. They symbolized wealth and a tourist attraction. Dantata was the innovative mind behind the northern groundnut pyramids. Dantata moved to Kano and became one of the most successful businessmen in about 5 years. As soon as he entered the groundnut business, he dominated the field. In 1918, the Royal Niger Company approached him for the sale of groundnut and he accepted. As a prominent nut trader, he had an edge over other businessmen because he had had contact with the traders of the Goldcoast.

He could speak English, thus he was able to negotiate directly with the European traders for better deals. Also, he was still a relatively young man, so the agility to go about was present for him. He became the leading buyer of groundnuts for the RNC (later became UAC foods). Dantata also had many other business deals and ventures both in Nigeria and other West African countries. He traded in cloth, beads, cattle, kola, grains, precious stones, and many other things.

His Death

In August 1955, Dantata fell seriously ill. Seeing that his end was near, he summoned his chief financial controller and his children and implored them to live together. Concerned about his company, Hassan Dantata, and Sons, he asked them not to allow the company to be ruined. He also advised them to preserve the ties of kinship and feed the poor always. He died in his sleep three days later, on Wednesday 17th August 1955.

Other interesting facts about Al Hassan Dantata

  • He made a pilgrimage to Mecca by boat in 1920 and he financed the pilgrimages of other Muslims to Mecca.
  • Some of his descendants, like Aminu Dantata (one of his children), Mariya Sunusi (one of his grandchildren) and Aliko Dangote (one of his great-grandchildren) still continue the tradition of financing other Muslim pilgrims to Mecca every year.
  • Dantata was the first Kano businessman to operate a bank account when he deposited 20 camel loads of silver coins to the Bank of British West Africa (now First Bank of Nigeria).
  • Some of his employers stayed in his house without rent and were even regarded as members of his extended family.
  • He was once appointed as a director of the Railway corporation.
  • Shortly before his death, he pointed to 60 groundnut pyramids and said “these are all mine”.
  • As at the time of his death, he was considered the richest man in West Africa.
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