Like The Journey of the Magi, that famous poem by T.S. Eliot, writing biographies is one long, arduous, lonely journey fraught with frustrations—the type the Three Wise men faced on their way to locate the newly born baby Jesus whose shining star they had seen.
Along the way, if you as a biographer meet some kind people who understand your mission and are welcoming and are willing to talk to you, it’s like finding water in the hot desert oasis.
In my quest to write this business biography, I have met some nice people who have been welcoming, who gave me water to drink, who talked to me from the bottom of their heart, who shared their insights, believing that the book I am writing is what Nigeria needs today.
Among the heavyweight heroes of my biographical quest are: Former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Aremo Olusegun Obasanjo, Niyi Adebayo, Donald Duke, Gbenga Daniel, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor Akinwumi Ambode, Babatunde Fashola, Mrs. Maiden Ibru, Prof. Niyi Osundare, Aig Imoukhuede, Kunle Elebute (KPMG Chairman), Zouera Youssoufou, Edwin Devakumar, Knut Ulvmoen, Olusanya Olusegun, Asue Ighodalo—all of them talking to me about the Aliko Dangote they know whose feat should be celebrated so that Nigeria would have more Dangotes and more Mike Adenugas. It was this biographical quest that took me to Abuja in search of Mairo Mandara, the woman stuck between two powerful men: Bill Gates and Aliko Dangote.
The woman who says to me: “I am stuck between these two men, sitting behind them and giving them a brief of what their next meeting is all about. And each one of them knowing the facts and figures better than me the expert. You are trying to give them data about the number of children. How much does it take to make sure that children survive?
This one says this, that one fixes all the calculation. They are both reeling figures and figures. It’s so phenomenal to see these two people who can choose to do something else are choosing to dedicate their lives and their time to improving the lives of women and children in rural Nigeria, in the villages of Nigeria that they have no clue who they are. Every time I think of them, I just feel that the minimum I personally can do is to give my best. So for me, that is my Aliko Dangote and Bill Gates moment.”
Dr. Mairo Mandara is the Country Manager of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Nigeria, a philanthropic organization set up, “on the premise that all lives have equal value, and so our work therefore is to help support people live healthy productive lives. And we work to support vulnerable people, poor people, and make sure that they have healthy productive lives. So we work to help them help themselves,” says Mandara, an obstetrician-gynecologist who is a fellow of the West African College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Working as a doctor and as a doctor of pregnant women, I discovered that a lot of the challenges that we face in the north—I was working in Zaria—especially around early childbirth, the vesico-vaginal fistula, young girls dying as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, women dying as a result of too many pregnancies, children not immunized and therefore having epidemics of measles, of meningitis, of all kinds of things, you find that the bulk of the diseases or the conditions of women and children that cause their deaths is simply because the women are not educated,” she told me.
“So I then started moving to public health, trying to educate the women themselves. And I was not satisfied with really treating one patient at a time. I wanted to treat thousands of patients at a time. And that gradually drifted me to do public health in reproductive health, which is what I have continued to be doing up to this stage.”
She used to work for Packard Foundation Nigeria from where she was invited to help start the Bill Gates and Melinda Foundation in Nigeria which opened the door for managing two powerful men in the world: Bill Gates and Aliko Dangote whom she has always known at a personal level. For close to an hour, she talked about Bill Gates and Dangote, how they first met around 2010, what they share in common as friends, their humility, their retentive memories, their parental influences, philanthropy and their grasp of figures.
“They all have figures,” Mandara says. “My experience with both of them is that you don’t say to them something like 5.76 now and then later you tell them 5.77 because you have approximated. They would remind you that it is 5.76. The sense of figures is phenomenal. They both love data. The quantum of what they can remember is superhuman. They just remember things like that. Both are humble. Very humble. If you want to see them upset, then talk about people dying unfairly. They have so much in common. Having worked so closely with both of them, it’s phenomenal.
Both of them are unassuming. If you don’t know their faces and Aliko walks in here, you will continue talking to me. You won’t raise your eye and look at them. Unless you know their faces and know who they are. They have unassuming persona. They are two good friends. The rapport between them is instant. When I see them meet, they just continue where they last stopped. You don’t need to brief Aliko on what to say to Bill as we do as staff. When they meet, they just connect. They are spontaneous with each other. And for me, spontaneity is a sign of genuineness.”
To Dr. Mandara, “Dangote is a book that should be studied in our universities and higher institutions where students can learn from his business acumen. We don’t need just one book, we need different kinds of books on him to be read even at secondary and primary schools. This is because he is an inspiration. An inspiration because my interpretation of his wealth is that the wealth on its own is not an end but the means to do what he really wants to do. The wealth is a means to achieving what he really wanted to achieve. So you could see that he is not just struggling to just accumulate wealth. He is getting wealth and he is spending. And it is in the spending that you see him glowing. So the wealth is a tool. It is not an end by itself. That attitude towards wealth is something that we all need to imbibe—including you and I. Just keeping money is not good enough.
“I like to see Aliko portrayed in your book as the human being that he is. From what I know of him, he would primarily be a father before the President of Dangote Group. So the humanness in him is for me phenomenal. Then the second is that I would like to see you portray him not as a celebrity. Because that is to diminish his essence. I want to see him being brought out as an example of the essence of living. Because when the chips are down, when we are all gone, what is important is: What did we leave behind? How many people’s lives did we impact? For me, these are the things. This is it!”