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Dangote Office Raid: Nigerian Business Sector on Edge

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Last week’s raid by the anti-graft commission on the offices of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest person whose empire dominates the Nigerian corporate world, has sent panic through the country’s boardrooms. But the clues were hiding in plain sight.

Days before newly elected President Bola Tinubu took office in May 2023, Dangote opened a vast oil refinery to great fanfare.

Unexpectedly missing from the attending dignitaries, which included outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari and other heads of state, was Tinubu himself, despite the game-changing role Nigeria hopes the refinery will play in slashing its dependence on costly imports.

It seemed unusual at the time and now points to chillier relations with the country’s new leadership.

Fast forward to January 4 and Dangote’s offices received a high-profile visit from the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, part of a sprawling investigation into the former head of Nigeria’s central bank and foreign-exchange dealings he oversaw.

The EFCC has yet to publicly comment on the raid.

Dangote Group said in a statement that it has faced no accusations of wrongdoing and called the incident an “unwarranted embarrassment,” after the presence of brightly-clad EFCC officers at its Lagos headquarters was splashed across local media. It has declined further comment and Dangote himself has remained silent in public.

But the business community was put on notice.

“Manufacturers are concerned that if this can happen to Dangote, it can happen to any one of them,” said Segun Ajayi-Kadir, director-general of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria. “They are worried.”

Slamming the EFCC for the aggressive nature of its tactics, the Association said currency allocations to more than 50 companies were under scrutiny and warned of a chilling impact on the economy.

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“This news has gone around the world and many, including would-be investors, would be taken aback,” Ajayi-Kadir said in a separate statement. “This may not be the best way to show that Nigeria is committed to good corporate governance.”

Nigerian dollar bonds maturing 2025 have fallen for seven consecutive days to the lowest since Nov. 28 for their longest losing streak since September, suggesting that investors are watching what happens next.

Dangote Refinery

The anti-graft commission is expected to focus on the funding of the $18.5 billion refinery, which was built by Dangote and was granted access to scarce dollars by the central bank to help it procure needed equipment.

Others saw a wider warning.

“It’s basically a signal to the business community that this government will go after anyone who they perceive may have the means to help fill the dollar gap in the government’s coffers,” said Cheta Nwanze of Lagos-based strategic consultancy SBM Intelligence.

To corporate Nigeria, it was also an unmistakable message about who was in charge. It came on the heels of Tinubu’s New Year’s Day speech in which he promised to “remove any clog hindering our path to making Nigeria a destination of choice for local and foreign investments.”

Three days later, the EFCC burst into Dangote HQ, triggering a scramble across Nigerian boardrooms to check their dealings with the central bank under Godwin Emefiele, who led it from 2014 until his ouster in June.

Tinubu was highly critical of the forex practices of the central bank as he campaigned for the presidency last year and suspended Emefiele within weeks of taking office.

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The central banker was arrested soon after on charges including fraud. He was taken into custody and released on bail last month. A separate probe of Emefiele by a Tinubu-appointed special investigator has accused him, among other things, of manipulating the naira via a complex foreign-exchange regime.

The former governor has denied wrongdoing. His trial on the initial charges is ongoing and no findings have been proven. He has not yet been formally charged in connection with the allegations raised by Tinubu’s special investigator.

The foreign exchange regime he oversaw involved propping up the official level of the Nigerian currency by rationing dollars from official sources, but it couldn’t prevent its value on the unofficial market from slumping.

Providing access to scarce dollars was supposed to support national champions like Dangote. But it also provided easy profits to those granted the privilege, who could turn around and sell the dollars back on the unofficial market at a much higher naira rate.

Tinubu took swift aim at the foreign-exchange regime on taking office, announcing a plan to adopt a uniform exchange rate and cancelling fuel subsidies. The currency quickly fell by at least 50% and has remained under pressure.

Both moves have caused pain for ordinary Nigerians by triggering a surge in the cost of living. But they were embraced as bold and vital reforms by international investors, and the scrutiny Dangote is now facing is seen by some as part of the same process.

Priority sectors

“Investors were well aware that priority sectors of the economy got preferential access to US dollars from 2015-23,” said Charles Robertson, head of macro strategy at FIM Partners UK Ltd. “The raids today do signal the CBN’s change of focus.”

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So far, investors look unconvinced. Total capital inflows declined 44% to $655 million in third quarter 2023 from $1.16 billion a year earlier, according to data published on the website of Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics last week.

The manufacturers association warned that the optics of how the anti-graft officers handled the situation “may have great impact” for perceptions of the country’s respect for the business community.

“Not that any company is above investigation, but it is about the appropriateness of the method and the sheer brigandage we saw on display,” it said. “It is whether it will take an armed invasion by dozens of security operatives to get documents from a well-structured and clearly identifiable company like Dangote Industries Ltd.”






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