African tycoon draws Nigeria, France into 'cement war' in Senegal

African tycoon draws Nigeria, France into 'cement war' in Senegal
The construction of Dangote Industries cement plant, owned by Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest man according to Forbes magazine, has been opposed by French cement group Vicot, denouncing a "distortion of competition" and appealing to Senegal's justice system to demand arbitration.

DAKAR - Its shimmering azure chimney stacks towering into the sky, the latest cement works launched by Africa's richest man lies idle in a Senegalese meadow -- stopped in its tracks by legal action and cut-throat competition in a rapidly growing industry.

Nigerian industrialist Aliko Dangote's cement business has been flourishing elsewhere in Africa and the Senegalese project, first conceived four years ago, was due to start production in June.

But the west African nation's government is being taken to a regional arbitration court in Ivory Coast by French manufacturer Vicat, which claims that the plant represents a "distortion of competition" in a country where the market is already saturated.

"This is the first time in the history of Senegal that we have seen a plant built in violation of all the rules," said Boubacar Camara, president of Sococim, a Senegalese subsidiary of Vicat.

Dangote, 56, made his first fortune in Nigeria more than three decades ago when he started trading commodities with a loan from his uncle.

His cement business is the jewel in the crown of the Dangote Group, the largest industrial conglomerate in west Africa according to Forbes magazine, which describes Dangote variously as "the richest black person in the world" or "Africa's richest man", with a personal fortune of $25 billion (18 billion euros).

He has been expanding his empire outside of Nigeria in recent years -- Dangote Cement now has operations in 15 African countries -- but the Senegal project and the court case aiming to stop it may come to represent a frustrating inability to leverage his influence across the entire continent.

4,000 jobs

"A cement plant is dangerous, you need permits, prior authorisation and you also have to conduct an environmental impact study. That hasn't been done," Camara told AFP.

The water-cooling technology involved in the $630 million (457 million-euro) plant would require a daily withdrawal of 4,500 cubic metres of groundwater, a precious commodity in an arid Sahelian country like Senegal, according to Camara.

"It's a race against the clock. Once production begins, it will be much more difficult to intervene," Camara told AFP.

"Given the conditions in which he has installed his plant, Dangote could come and set whatever prices he likes."

Dangote has said the operation would create 4,000 jobs and, in any case, the state has no power to oppose it, a source close to the Senegalese Ministry of Mines told AFP.

"Initially, there was were certain procedural irregularities that Dangote fixed," said the source, adding that "the main problem was the environmental impact".

French President Francois Holland wrote to his Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall in January about the plant "in order to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by Sococim", according to a source in the Senegalese presidency.

Sall responded to the effect that "the rule of law and the Senegalese courts" would must be allowed to decide whether the project could go ahead, the source told AFP.

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