How a Billionaire Changed Corrupt Government: Dangote vs. Mugabe

Did a Nigerian CEO single-handedly wipe out source of Zimbabwean ‘indigenisation’ corruption?

The Zimbabwean economy has been struggling hard under the regime of President Robert Mugabe for years, having contracted as much as 40-50% and suffering from galloping inflation rates of over 79 billion % (so-called hyper-inflation, which is exceedingly rare today).  This has, in turn, led to tremendous human suffering, including famine, a significant exodus from the country, a decline in life expectancy, etc.

One of the oft-cited culprits hindering foreign direct investment (FDI) into Zimbabwe has been the official policy of “indigenisation.”  Andreas Stargard, an advisor on African competition and fraud issues and a Primerio director, comments:

“After the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement set in motion the ultimate Land Reforms and other measures that would allow the new majority rule to eradicate the remnants of the British Empire’s colonisation of the former Rhodesia, the Zanu-PF policy of requiring all FDI to cede 51% or more of the investment’s equity interest to native Zimbabweans, foreign interest in the country has dropped significantly.  The indigenisation policy has sent investors running — well above and beyond their already extant currency worries and the spectre of government-sanctioned expropriation.”

Indigenisation and its effects

The indigenisation rule applies to “any person who before the 18th of April 1980 was disadvantaged by unfair discrimination on the grounds of his or her race, and any descendant of such person.”  This law, the so-called ‘Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Bill of 2008‘ (IEEB), has not only hindered DFI, but also led to an exacerbation of corruption within the Zimbabwean business and government circles, as it acting as the Zimbabwean majority front-man has become a lucrative calling for otherwise unqualified government officials or their family members.

The Economist has noted, just prior to the 2008 enactment of the Zimbabwean law, that the vagueness of its provisions could be a harbinger of confusion (and, correspondingly, corruption):

Zimbabwe’s bill contains a lot of ambiguity, and gives a lot of loosely-defined discretion to the government. It is unclear whether the transfer would apply only to future mergers, demergers, restructurings and transfers, or to all existing companies. Moreover, the minister for indigenisation and empowerment would have to approve all ownership transfers and would have the power to impose alternative local partners if he disapproves of those involved in the proposed transactions. He would also have the authority to exempt selected companies from the ownership requirements for a certain period.

Dangote to the rescue

The man who has now called into question — and apparently successfully so — the Zimbabwean indigenisation rules is none other than one of  Africa’s foremost Black billionaire businessmen, Aliko Dangote.  He is the CEO of his eponymous company, Dangote Group, which has expanded from being once a mere concrete business to an conglomerate empire of significant proportions and well over $3 billion in annual revenues — enough to make Mr. Mugabe’s ministers now consider reforming (if only silently and unwillingly) the existing policy’s hurdles to FDI.

Although the Zimbabwean Vice President, Mr. Emmerson Mnangagwa, has denied any connection with the suddenly ongoing reforms to indigenisation rules and the Dangote Group’s recent promise to invest up to $400 million of sorely-needed hard, foreign currency into government coffers and domestic commercial banks, this seems to have been precisely the case, in AAF’s view.  Bloomberg has reported that not only Dangote, but also the (decidedly non-Black, despite its name) BlackRhino private-equity infrastructure fund, which is a Blackstone subsidiary, would consider concomitant investing into Zimbabwean power generation.  Other media outlets likewise reported the dramatic change in demeanour over the past two weeks, since Mr. Dangote’s initial visit to the country and his subsequent threat to withdraw his investment promise, if needed reforms were not undertaken swiftly:

When Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote arrived in Zimbabwe last month, the red carpet was rolled out for Africa’s richest man.

He was showered with exclusive hospitality and access to ruling elites, including meetings with the two Vice Presidents Emmerson Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko before seeing President Robert Mugabe.

Since then, after Mr. Dangote strategically “forgot” to mention Zimbabwe as one of his target countries, thereby prompting deservedly worried Zanu-PF reactions, the ruling party has apparently gotten the memo from the mega-CEO: it recently released an official Presidential memorandum announcing reforms to “improve the easy of doing business” in Zimbabwe.  Says Stargard:

“See, under the existing IEEB rules, it’s not enough to be Black in Zim by the Zanu-PF’s standards for doing business — one must also be Zimbabwean by birth (or at least as of the country’s independence day in 1980).  So Mr. Dangote does not qualify for preferential treatment, and therefore would have to cede over half of his local investment value to domestic ‘business interests,’ AKA a vast array of potentially corrupt shell entities or individuals waiting to benefit from the Dangote/BlackRhino investment slush fund.”

A local Harare attorney, Obert Gutu (Twitter), told a Financial Gazette reporter that in his view, the ambiguities and resulting counter-productive effects outweighed the upsides of the law: “The contradictory statements that are being made by different ZANU-PF cabinet ministers are symptomatic of policy incoherence and institutionalised confusion.”

Mr. Dangote would seem to agree with Mr. Gutu’s views, expressed more than a year ago in the Gazette’s aptly titled article “Indigenisation Act Continues To Create Confusion“:

“It is a populist indigenisation policy that is benchmarked on emotive utterances that do not resonate with the reality that is presently obtaining within the global macro-economic architecture.  For as long as the ZANU-PF government trumpets this populist indigenisation policy, Zimbabwe will not attract any meaningful foreign direct investment. Our national economy will remain fragmented, perilous and fragile.”

We conclude by (1) hoping that Mr. Dangote’s influence (or at least that of his U.S. dollar-denominated chequebook) bears fruit and stamps out a good part of the extant corruption in Zimbabwean politics; and we (2) note that Zimbabwean indigenisation stands not alone in Africa — other countries, notably South Africa with its Black Economic Empowerment rules in effect since the early 2000s, have similar (although perhaps less draconian) measures in place to level the playing field in the former European colonies.  The Zanu-PF version of Black economic empowerment is, however, apparently too counter-productive even for Africa’s most influential Black businessman, as we are now beginning to learn…

To be continued

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