Alhassan Dantata (1877– 17 August 1955) was a northern Nigerian kola nut trader and the wealthiest man in West Africa at the time of his death.
Dantata’s father was Abdullahi, a man from the village of Danshayi, near Kano. Dantata was born in Bebeji in 1877, one of several children of Abdullahi and his wife, both of whom were traders and caravan leaders. His father died in Bebeji, and his mother moved to Gonja, now in northern Ghana. The children were too young to succeed to their father’s position and to manage his considerable wealth. They all received their portion according to Islamic law.
Maduga Amarya, like her mother in law, was a trader of wealth in her own right. Indeed she was known to be such a forceful character that nobody in the Zango would take her to wife.
She therefore decided to leave the children in Bebeji, in the care of an old slave woman, while she moved to Accra where she became one of the wealthier Hausa traders. The slave woman was known as “Tata” from which circumstance young Alhassan became known as Alhassan Dantata because of her role as his ‘mother’ (” Dan-tata” means “son of Tata” in Hausa language).
Alhassan was sent to a Qur’anic school (madrasah) in Bebeji and as his share of his father’s wealth (as so often happens), seemed to have vanished, he had to support himself. The life of the almajiri (Qur’anic student) is difficult, as he has to find food and clothing for himself and also for his malam (teacher) and at the same time read. Some simply beg while others seek paid work. Alhassan worked and even succeeded at the insistence of Tata in saving. His asusu, “money box” (a pottery vessel) purchased by Dantata and set in the wall of the house can still be seen.
When he was about 15 years of age, Alhassan joined a Gonja bound caravan to see his mother. He purchased some items from Bebeji, he sold half of them on the way and the rest in Accra. When he saw his mother, he was very delighted hoping she would allow him to live without doing any work since she was one of the wealthier local traders. After only a rest of one day, she took him to another malam and asked him to stay there until he was ready to return to Kano and he worked harder in Accra than he did in Bebeji.
After the usual reading of the Qur’an, Alhassan Dantata had to go and beg for food for his malam, and himself. When he worked for money on Thursdays and Fridays, Alhassan Dantata would not be allowed to spend the money for himself alone, his malam always took the lion’s share (this is normal in Hausa society). After the visit, his mother sent him back to Bebeji where he continued his studies. Even though now a teenager, Dantata continued to insist that he must save something everyday.
Kano civil war and Slavery
In 1893 Dantata was still a teenager boy when the great upheavals occurred in the Kano Emirate. This included the Kano Civil War (1893–1894) and the British invasion of the emirate. During the Kano Civil war,Dantata and his brothers were captured and sold as slaves, but they were able to buy their freedom back and return to Bebeji shortly afterwards.
Dantata later returned to Bebeji, and began using steamships to transport kola nuts between Accra and Lagos. He later diversified his trade into items such as beads and necklaces, and bought a house in the Koki ward of Kano. He married Umma Zaria, and she conducted business for him with women (him not doing it for religious reasons).
In 1918, the UK-based Royal Niger Company searched for an agent to purchase groundnuts for them, and Dantata responded to their offer. Alhassan remained in Bebeji until matters had settled down and the roads were secure, only then did he set out for Accra, by way of Ibadan and Lagos (Ikko) and then by sea to Accra and then to Kumasi, Sekondi and back to Lagos. Alhassan was one of the pioneers of this route.
For several years, he carried his kola by sea, using steamers; to Lagos where he usually sold it to Kano bound merchants. By this time, he was relatively wealthy. In 1906, he began broadening his interests by trading in beads, necklaces, European cloth, etc. His mother, who had never remarried, died in Accra around 1908 and he thereafter generally restricted his operations to Lagos and Kano, although he continued to visit Accra.
Thus far in his career, with most of his fellow long distance traders, he continued to live in one of the towns some distance from Kano City, only visiting the Birni for business purposes. Before Alhassan settled in Kano permanently, he visited Kano City only occasionally to either purchase or sell his wares. He did not own a house there, but was satisfied with the accommodation given to him by his patoma (land lord.).
It was during the time of the first British appointed Emir of Kano; Abbas (1903–1919) that Alhassan decided to establish a home in Kano. He purchased his first house in the Sarari area (an extension of Koki). At that time there were no houses from the house of Baban Jaki (at the end of Koki) up to Kofar Mazugal. In fact the area was called Sarari because it was empty and nobody wanted that land. Alhassan built his first house on that land and was able thereafter to extend it freely.
In 1912, when the Europeans started to show an interest in the export of groundnut, they contacted the already established Kano merchants through the Emir, Abbas and their chief agent, Adamu Jakada. Some established merchants of Kano like Umaru Sharubutu, Maikano Agogo and others were approached and accepted the offer.
Later in 1918, Alhassan was approached by the Niger Company to help purchase groundnuts for them. He was already familiar with the manner by which people made fortunes by buying cocoa for Europeans in the Gold Coast.
He responded and participated in the enterprise with enthusiasm, he had several advantages over other Kano business men: he could speak some English because of his contact with the people on the coast, thus he could negotiate more directly with the European traders for better prices.
He also had accumulated a large capital and unlike other established Kano merchants, had only a small family to maintain, as he was still a relatively young man. Alhassan had excellent financial management, was frugal and unostentatious.
He knew some accounting and with the help of Alhaji Garba Maisikeli, his financial controller for 38 years, every kobo was accounted for every day. Not only that, Alhassan was hard working and always around to provide personal supervision of his workers.
As soon as he entered the groundnut purchasing business, he came to dominate the field. In fact by 1922 he became the wealthiest businessman in Kano. Umaru Sharubutu and Maikano Agogo were relegated to the second and the third positions respectively.
When the British Bank of West Africa was opened in Kano in 1929, he became the first Kano businessman to use a bank account when he deposited twenty camel loads of silver coins. Shortly before his death, he pointed to sixty “groundnut pyramids” in Kano and said, “These are all mine”. Alhassan became the chief produce buyer especially of groundnuts for the Niger Company (later U.A.C). It is said that he used to purchase about half of all the nuts purchased by U.A.C in northern Nigeria.
Because of this, he applied for a license to purchase and export groundnuts in 1940 just like the U.A.C. However, because of the great depression and the war situation, it was not granted. Even Saul Raccah lost his license to export and import about this time because he did not belong to the Association of West African Merchants.
In 1953-4 he became a licensed buying agent (L.B.A) that is, a buyer who sells direct to the marketing board instead of to another firm. However, Alhassan had many business connections both in Nigeria and in other West African countries, particularly the Gold Coast.
He dealt, not only in groundnuts, but also in other merchandise. He traded in cattle, kola, cloth, beads, precious stones, grains, rope and other things. 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.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
He made a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca via boat in the early 1920s, and stopped in England. He also financed the pilgrimages of others Muslims.
By 1922 Dantata had become the richest businessman in Kano, surpassing fellow merchants Umaru Sharubutu Koki and Maikano Agogo. In 1929, when the Bank of British West Africa opened a branch in Kano, Dantata placed 20 camel-loads of silver coins in it. (For religious reasons, his money collected no interest.)
He died in Kano on 17 August 1955, having exhorted his children to not let his company, Alhassan Dantata and Sons, be broken up. He was buried in his house in the Sarari ward.
In 1955, Dantata fell ill and because of the seriousness of his illness, he summoned his chief financial controller, Garba Maisikeli and his children. He told them that his days were approaching their end and advised them to live together. He was particularly concerned about the company he had established (Alhassan Dantata & Son’s).
He asked them not to allow the company to collapse. He implored them to continue to marry within the family as much as possible. He urged them to avoid clashes with other wealthy Kano merchants. They should take care of their relatives, especially the poor among them. Three days later he died in his sleep on Wednesday 17 August 1955. He was buried the same day in his house in Sarari ward, Kano. At the time of his death, Dantata was the wealthiest man in the West Africa.
Among Dantata’s sons were Mamuda (1922–1983), founder of the West African Pilgrims Association and a currency trader, Sanusi (born 1917), a very successful businessman, Ahmadu (died 1960), a politician, and Aminu (born 1931), a businessman. Aliko Dangote, the richest black man in the world is his great grand child.