Supporters say he is straightforward, honest and unsparingly competitive. Like many of his ilk, Dangote is a workaholic who rarely takes vacations. But there is little doubt that he has taken advantage of the system as he found it.
He has proved adept at aligning his own and national interests. Dangote was a close advisor after former General Olusegun Obasanjo came out of retirement to win the first civilian elections in 1999. He also financially backed Obasanjo's second election campaign, in 2003, and is an advisor to current President Goodluck Jonathan.
Until recently, when Dangote proposed building a giant oil refinery that would mean Nigeria could refine all its own crude for the first time, he had largely avoided the country's notoriously corrupt oil industry. But the project is typical of his vision. It will allow him to move into producing fertilizer and polypropylene, a feedstock for plastics.
Nigeria will get cheaper petroleum products than those it now has to import, which will boost Dangote's Nigerian businesses and the economy overall. The government should need to spend less on subsidies. As Africa's largest economy a more vigorous Nigerian economy will help lift growth across the continent, which is where Dangote's ambitions also now more broadly lie.