Isabel Dos Santos, the former president of Sonangol accused of « siphoning off the country’s coffers ».

Regularly cited among Africa’s biggest fortunes, the daughter of the former Angolan head of state is accused by a group of international journalists of having plundered part of the country’s wealth. A case that highlights the often porous nature of the relationship between business and politics on the continent.

For the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled Angola for 38 years (1979-2017), the timing could not have been more unfortunate. While her name appears (again) in the latest Forbes ranking of African billionaires, published on 17 January, Isabel Dos Santos ($2.2 billion of personal fortune according to the American magazine) is now accused by an international investigation of having « siphoned off the country’s coffers (Angola, editor’s note) ». This is in any case the conclusion of research by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)1 - the originator of the Panama Papers, among others - which made its work public on Sunday 19 January. Elements that the main interested party, former president (2016-2017) of the state-owned oil company Sonangol, describes as « lies », since according to her, the information comes from « leaks by the Angolan secret services, […] intended to discredit her ». In fact, the Angolan businesswoman denied any wrongdoing in a series of recent public interviews, which appear to have been scheduled to coincide with the data released by ICIJ.

1 The Consortium, made up of more than 120 journalists, including from the BBC, the New York Times and Le Monde, said it had compiled more than 715,000 documents before publishing its findings.

Long complacently described by the international media as a « self-made woman », the one nicknamed « the Princess » in Angola, is now portrayed as the architect of a real system of « public wealth grabbing », based on a « nebula composed of 400 companies identified in 41 countries », the oldest of which would have been established as early as 1992.

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Serious allegations, which echo the actions currently being taken by the Angolan and Portuguese courts against Isabel Dos Santos : The Angolan judicial authorities suspect the daughter of the former head of state of having embezzled more than a billion dollars of assets from the state-owned companies Sonangol (oil) and Endiama (diamonds) to finance her private operations, while in Portugal, an investigation for public money laundering was opened in early January, the businesswoman holding multiple interests (construction, banking, oil and food…) in several major groups in the country.

Sonangol’s headquarters in Luanda. The company was managed by Isabel Dos Santos between June 2016 and November 2017. © Martin Wolter

Isabel dos Santos was appointed head of Sonangol in November 2016, before being dismissed a year later by the current president, João Lourenço. Following this, the new management team launched an audit of the accounts and reported several suspicious financial transfers. Beyond the alleged nepotism of the Dos Santos clan, the ICIJ investigation also reveals the often murky role played by many large Western consulting firms, such as PwC and Boston Consulting Group. Companies that, according to the newspaper Le Monde, « have played a crucial role in facilitating Isabel Dos Santos’ business by accepting, without any grumbling, to put their expertise at the service of her offshore companies ». In short, a system which, in addition to the personalities now incriminated, has benefited a whole range of intermediaries, as interested as they are complicit.