By Valentina Pasquali
A 61-year-old Nigerian oil tycoon is now the richest black woman in the world, having recently overtaken American entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey for the title.
Born into an affluent family, Alakija started out in the mid-1970s as a secretary at the now-defunct International Merchant Bank in Lagos. There, Alakija got to know the biggest movers and shakers in Nigeria’s financial sector.
Before diving into the oil business, she studied fashion in London, where she created her own label, Supreme Stitches. The business catered to the Nigerian upper class, providing further opportunity for Alakija to mingle with Lagos’s elite. “Alakija made her name dressing prominent women, mostly wives of wealthy politicians,” says BBC Lagos correspondent, Tomi Oladipo.
Her expansive connections soon paid off, although in ways that had little to do with fashion. “[President] Ibrahim Babangida had a notoriety for awarding lucrative state contracts and oil assets to his close friends, allies and family members,” says Mfonobong Nsehe, managing director of Ventures Africa, the business publication that first broke the news of Alakija’s becoming the world’s richest black woman. “Fortunately for Alakija, she had become a part of this fold on account of her friendship with the president’s wife. In 1993 she was awarded an oil-prospecting license by the Babangida administration.”
Many of the people that received licenses at the time had little knowledge of the oil exploration business and quickly sold their properties to foreign investors. Alakija, however, hung on and appointed a subsidiary of Texaco to help her figure out the technical aspects.
Once the discovery was made in 2000 that Alakija’s field contained in excess of one billion barrels of oil, one of the largest reserves of crude in Nigeria, the government repossessed it. But in May 2012, the country’s Supreme Court returned a majority stake to Alakija, making her a billionaire.
According to the BBC’s Oladipo, Alakija’s story “is quite significant in Nigerian—and African—society, which is heavily male-dominated.” Other observers, while recognizing her intelligence and influence, don’t necessarily see her as a role model for women entrepreneurs in Africa, but rather as someone who was at the right place at the right time and benefited from a corrupt system of patronage that was rampant in Nigeria at the time.