Isabel Dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, made her fortune by exploiting her country, ICIJ says

Posted by
Ms Dos Santos is nicknamed “The Princess” back home in Angola.

Leaked documents show how Africa’s richest woman made her fortune by plundering millions from her country, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Key points:

  • Ms Dos Santos was put in change of Angola’s struggling Sonangol state oil company in 2016
  • She expressed interest in running for the presidency last week
  • Leaked records showed a different story about how Ms Dos Santos made her wealth

The ICIJ has released more than 715,000 documents which claim to show how Isabel Dos Santos got access to lucrative deals involving land, oil, diamonds and telecoms when her father was president of the resource-rich southern African state of Angola.

The trove of documents, including emails, contracts, videos, tax returns and loan agreements have been dubbed the Luanda Leaks, after Angola’s capital.

Ms Dos Santos is the daughter of former Angolan president Eduardo Dos Santos, who ruled for 38 years until he retired in 2017.

Who is Isabel Dos Santos?

Isabel Dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former President, wears a black blazer and a light pink blouse.

The 46-year-old businesswoman nicknamed “The Princess” at home is estimated to be worth more than $US2 billion ($2.9 billion) by Forbes Magazine, while two-thirds of her compatriots live on less than $US2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Ms Dos Santos was put in charge of Angola’s struggling Sonangol state oil company in 2016 following a presidential decree by her father, but was sacked in 2017 two months after President Joao Lourenco took over power.

She holds significant stakes in several important Portuguese firms, including in Eurobic bank, telecoms company NOS, engineering company Efacec, and oil and gas company Galp Energia. 

She expressed interest in running for the presidency last Thursday, the first time she has mooted entering politics.

Former Angolan president speaks in front of his ruling party.

In the past, she has consistently identified herself as an entrepreneur, not a politician.

Ms Dos Santos divides opinion in Angola. Supporters see her as an inspiring entrepreneur, while detractors said she embodies African corruption, with her fortune and Instagram-published jet-setting offensive to the poor.

She currently lives in the United Kingdom, where she owns three luxurious properties in central London, but also has homes in Lisbon, Dubai, and Monaco.

What is in the leaked documents?

YOUTUBE:Luanda leaks: A global story

The leaked cache of records showed a dramatically different story about how Ms Dos Santos — who has always claimed to be a self-made entrepreneur — made her wealth.

Hundreds of thousands of documents included spreadsheets, ledgers, audits, organisational charts, lists of clients with overdue payments for jewels, bank loans, government advisories, board of directors minutes and videos show how Ms Dos Santos and her husband exploited weak or often non-existent regulations, according to the ICIJ.

The records also showed how service providers, financial firms, lawyers, accountants and government officials from Lisbon, London and Dubai were benefitting from helping Ms Dos Santos build her business empire.

The ICIJ reported two decades of insider deals involving how Ms Dos Santos shielded her assets from tax authorities by moving hundreds of millions of dollars in Angolan public money into a web of offshore companies and subsidiaries.

More than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 counties have been linked to her and her husband Sindika Doloka, including 94 tax havens in countries such as Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong.

It also showed how Ms Dos Santos enticed Western governments and businesses to invest in her ventures, through banks if other financial institutions or insurers refused to do business with her, and pushed a redevelopment project which led to the forced evictions of thousands of impoverished Angolans.

She is also shown directing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and contracts to her own company, including a payment order from the Angolan state oil company to a bank account in Dubai controlled by her friend.

The documents were gathered over the course of eight months by more than 120 journalists from the ICIJ and 36 other media organisations in 20 countries who travelled to Angola.

Have questions been raised about her wealth before?

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO 0:18

Isabel dos Santos maintains she built her own wealthABC NEWS

In late December, Angolan authorities froze Ms Dos Santos’s and her husband’s personal bank accounts, as well as their stakes in nine state-owned firms — Unitel, the country’s telecommunications giant, BFA bank and other smaller ventures including a supermarket chain, mall and cinema.

State prosecutors allege that she and her husband owed the country more than $US1 billion ($1.45 billion) by steering payments from firms which also included the national diamond trading company Sodiam, and national oil company Sonangol, in which they held stakes.

The move was seen as the strongest sign of Mr Lourenco’s intent to crack down on corruption and nepotism in the country. 

Ms Dos Santos and her husband have denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations against her, calling it a politically motivated “witch-hunt” by the Angolan Government.

In an interview with Portuguese TV channel RTP, she framed the accusations not just as an attack on her family but as a campaign against future candidates for office.

“We cannot use corruption, or the supposed fight against corruption, in a selective way to neutralise who we think could be future political candidates,” she said.

“It’s about the fight for power.”

How does a small Portuguese bank fit into all this

An office branch of Eurobic in Portugal.

Portugal’s central bank is currently carrying out an inspection of small local lender Eurobic bank — in which Ms Dos Santos is the main shareholder — to assess its procedures against money laundering, Eurobic said.

Responding to questions from Reuters, the unlisted bank said it was complying with all requirements to prevent illegal transactions and that it saw the inspection as “part of the normal supervision process” in the banking sector.

Inside the Panama Papers

Why does this matter? Is it illegal? How do they operate? These questions and more are answered in our explainer.

It also noted that the inspection began in late November, before Angolan authorities froze Ms Dos Santos’s assets in the African country.

The bank had assets worth 7.5 billion euros ($12.1 billion) in 2018, with deposits of 5.7 billion euros ($9.2 billion) and loans of 4.9 billion ($7.9 billion).

The Bank of Portugal also investigated Eurobic in 2015. At the time, the central bank concluded, according to documents seen by Reuters, that “the inherent risk [of illegal transactions] is considered as high” due to its shareholders’ close links to Angola.

In 2015, the central bank also noted that Eurobic’s clients included various foreign, mainly Angolan, politically-exposed persons — a loose definition used by financial regulators to identify people holding prominent functions that can be abused for the purpose of laundering illicit funds, corruption or bribery.