Her name is Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of former Angolan president, she is the African richest woman, basking on $2.2bn fortune made through a conglomerate of businesses. This introduction is for a few who may have not heard of her.
Her journey to the status of “African richest woman” started toward the end of the Angolan civil war, when she returned from London where she had bagged a degree in electrical engineering and worked for two years at Coopers & Lybrand (PWC). She made her first business venture by acquiring a stake in Miami Beach Club, a struggling beach bar (Ilha de Luanda) in Angola, which eventually turned out to be a good investment and set Isabel on the path of other business that would crown her efforts with fortune. She was only in her mid-twenties.
Basking on the influence of her father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the former president of Angola, Isabel set out on a business adventure that would spread across many fields of investment – from eateries to oil.
When it appeared that the civil war was over, she started a transport business. And mobile phone technology caught her interest because of her dealing with communication for trucks. The consortium she was part of won the license in 1990 for a mobile phone telecommunication, which gave birth to Unitel, Angola’s biggest mobile phone provider. She would later acquire a 25% stake in Unitel from a high ranking government official.
Angola is the second largest oil producer in Africa with a lot of diamond to back up its natural resources. Isabel dos Santos ventured into oil, thanks to presidential decrees and her father’s influence that put her in charge of Sonagol in 2016. The country has enjoyed the booming oil prices from 2002 to 2008 that shot up its revenue from $3bn to $70bn in just six years. But then, it provided an opportunity for Isabel to secure her place in the secretive world of Angolan business elite.
She has subsequently amassed more wealth through so many other businesses. Isabel Dos Santos owns a large part of Angola’s cement, diamond and banking industry, and other stakes in a supermarket network, a satellite TV, brewery etc. her wealth was augmented when she married Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman and an art collector, whose foundation is reputed to hold the largest collection of African art in the world.
Dokolo’s collections include sports cars, superyacht, a huge penthouse in Lisbon. The couple also own three homes in a single gated development in Kensington, there is also a 50 million euro luxury flat in the Petite Afrique building in Monte Carlo, and a magnificent villa in the Algarve.
The wealth under the control of Isabel and her husband cuts across two continents. Portugal holds a large amount of the couple’s assets. There is also an 800 million euro stake in Galp oil and gas Group, a large shareholding in Eurobic, a Portuguese commercial bank, stakes in some banks in Angola and Cape Verde and a stake in the Pay TV and broadband group Galp.
Dokolo and Isabel Dos Santos were basking in this glory believed to have stemmed from hard work when the majority of Angolans are living below $3 per day. Their problem started in 2016 when a senior MPLA official who replaced her father as president in 2017, after his 38 years rule, Joao Lourenco removed Isabel as the head of the state owned Sonangol, and launched anti-corruption investigation.
Other members of the Dos Santos family have been fingered in a series of corruption allegations made as a result of the findings of the anti-graft campaign. Welwitschia dos Santos, Isabel’s half-sister fled to the UK, saying she has been a target of the secret service. Her half-brother, Jose Filomeno dos Santos is on trial for corruption.
While the family is being investigated by the authorities in Angola, investigative journalism conducted by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has uncovered documents revealing how Africa’s richest woman amassed her wealth. The documents show that she and her husband enjoyed special privileges that allowed them to secure deals in illicit ways.
The ICIJ investigation that was conducted in collaboration with other 37 media organizations shed light on the shady deals carried out by Isabel and her husband that contributed to the impoverishment of the Angolan people. Andrew Feinstein, the head, Corruption Watch, says the leaked documents reveal how dos Santos exploited her country to her selfish gain.
“Every time she appears on the cover of some glossy magazine somewhere in the world, every time that she hosts one of her glamorous parties in the south of France, she is doing so by trampling on the aspirations of the citizens of Angola,” he said.
In Sonangol Oil, where she served briefly as chair, the leaked documents show that she approved a suspicious payment to a consultancy company in Dubai called Matter Business Solutions, at the tune of $50 million. Though she denied having any financial interest in the company, traces reveal that the company is run by her business manager and owned by a friend.
The document also showed that she had to pay only 15% of the price of her stake in Galp upfront, and the remaining $70 million was turned into a low-interest loan from Sonangol which she used to make the purchase. The terms of the deal means that it will take 11 years before the loan could be repaid.
The diamond deal wasn’t free from indictment too. Sindika Dokolo, signed a one-sided agreement in 2012 with the country’s state diamond company Sodiam. They were supposed to be 50-50 partners in a deal to buy a stake in the Swiss luxury jeweler De Grisogono, but that didn’t happen.
The deal was single handedly financed by Sodiam. According to the documents, 18 months after deal was brokered, the Angolan state diamond company had put $79 million into the partnership, while Dokolo invested only $4 million. And he was awarded 5 million euro for brokering the deal, that means the diamond deal was wholly funded by Sodiam and Dokolo was only a beneficiary partner. When BBC contacted Isabel, she declined to comment on the deal saying that she is not a shareholder of De Grisogono. But the leaked documents show that she is described as a shareholder by her financial advisers.
Not only that, the former president awarded raw diamond procurement right to Dokolo. Sources who know about the deal say the Angolan people lost about $1bn in deal because diamonds were sold at unbefitting costs. Not only that, the loan taken by Sodiam to finance the deal was borrowed from a bank where Isabel is the biggest shareholder. The state diamond company had to pay 9% interest and the loan was guaranteed by a presidential decree by the former president, Eduardo dos Santos, so it must be repaid so that Isabel’s bank doesn’t lose out. Bravo da Rosa, the new chief executive of Sodiam, told Panorama that deal was designed to enrich dos Santos, not the Angolan people. “In the end, when we have finished paying back this loan, Sodiam will have lost more than $200 million,” he said.
Isabel’s land deal with the government was also not free from corruption. The documents show that she had acquired a square kilometer of the prime beachfront land in the capital Luanda with the help of presidential decree signed by her father. The land was worth $96 million, but she had paid only 5% of the cost. The occupants of the land had to be resettled some 50 kilometers from the capital Luanda, and their businesses killed.
There is more to the story that suggests corruption in every of the venture that has contributed to Isabel dos Santos’ wealth. Though she denied it, saying “it’s a witch hunt” that she has worked her way up to the top using her business acumen, but the documents labeled The Luanda Leaks refute her claims.