Legacies of the Cement Armada

Historian article

By Steven Pierce, published 20th August 2021

The 1970s Nigerian ‘Cement Armada’

Steven Pierce writes about Nigeria, long known for its flamboyant corruption, some of which stems from accidents of history. Its true international notoriety emerged in 1974–75, when half the world’s concrete supply was mysteriously diverted to the port of Lagos, paralysing it for a year. This article examines how the press coverage and the official inquiry paper developed – a story that involves cement and corrupt officials, but also a body in the Thames, a Balkan princess, and a Czech spy.

The scandal began slowly. Flush with oil money, Nigeria had embarked on a massive programme of public works; rebuilding after a brutal civil war. Domestic cement was in short supply, prompting the country to look for an outside source. In March 1974, the government supply agency requested the import of 2 million metric tons. The defence ministry, which needed 2.9 million metric tons for its own projects, ordered more than 16 million. The sudden demand came at a cost: Nigeria was paying about $115 for a ton of cement, nearly three times the world price at the time. The cement came from just about everywhere. Government agencies negotiated contracts for Romanian, Greek, Spanish, and American cement, and cargo ships headed for Lagos, Nigeria’s main port. An oversupply of overpriced cement became the least of the government’s problems as half the world’s supply of the building material diverted towards Nigeria, vastly outstripping the Port of Lagos’s capacity. And the government of Nigeria faced a colourful and embarrassing problem that would ultimately involve gridlocked ports, a murdered businessman, a Romanian Princess, a Czech spy and millions of oil dollars. Together they caused the country untold reputational damage...

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