Angolan billionaire Isabel dos Santos is going down swinging, and even the late Bruce Lee has been drawn into the saga. The eldest daughter of former president José Eduardo dos Santos claims a copy of a fake passport bearing the replicated signature of the martial artist and movie star was used as evidence to justify the freezing of her Angolan assets.
In a statement released on June 29 after she lost an appeal against the freezing of her assets, she claimed she had been denied justice. “This denial of justice comes from the Angolan courts, which have rejected my appeal on the grounds that it was not filed on time,” she said. “It is disappointing not to be allowed a day in court to prove my innocence and establish the truth.”
It Runs in the Family
José Eduardo dos Santos was the president of Angola for thirty-eight years, during which time his family amassed a fortune estimated at billions of dollars.
In 2016, he appointed Isabel, his eldest daughter, as chairperson of the state oil company Sonangol. By that time, her half-brother José Filomeno dos Santos, also known as Zenu, was already the chairperson of the state’s sovereign wealth fund.
Some of their lesser-known siblings and the first lady also had numerous business ventures that benefited from contracts with the state.
Isabel became a significant investor in banking and telecommunications assets in Portugal, and the international press lauded her as a self-made billionaire. She was ostensibly the eighth-richest woman in the world, who had achieved this status through shrewd business instincts, hard work, and tenacity. She and her husband, Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo, were often photographed with celebrities at glitzy events.
A New Order
João Lourenço took over as president in September 2017. He had barely been sworn in before he took drastic steps to crack down on corruption, including firing both Isabel and Zenu from their posts.
On December 23, 2019, the Angolan high court froze the domestic assets of Isabel, Dokolo, and Mário Leite da Silva, the chairman of Banco de Fomento Angola, while investigations were ongoing into claims she and her businesses owed Angola more than US$1 billion. (That figure has since ballooned to US$5 billion.)
The Angolan authorities requested that Portugal freeze their bank accounts, and in February the public prosecutor’s office in Lisbon confirmed that dozens of their personal and corporate accounts had been seized.
Zenu is currently on trial in Angola, accused of transferring US$500 million to a foreign bank account using fake documents.
The Luanda Leaks
In January 2020, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a report of its investigation after it had obtained a trove of documents that came to be known as the Luanda Leaks. The investigation drew on 715,000 confidential financial and business documents and hundreds of interviews to trace Isabel dos Santos’s wealth, the result of two decades’ worth of nepotism, shell companies, and insider deals that robbed the Angolan people of the wealth stemming from the country’s rich oil and diamond deposits.
It presented a stark illustration of how dictators and their families move their ill-gotten gains to offshore secrecy jurisdictions with the aid of prominent Western banking and credit firms.
The results of such corruption have been devastating for Angola: the country is ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, and has an average life expectancy at birth of just sixty and an infant mortality rate among the highest in the world.
The ICIJ, in conjunction with thirty-six media partners, found that Isabel dos Santos, Sindika Dokolo, and several intermediaries built a fraudulent international business empire with more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries. At least 94 of these companies were in secrecy jurisdictions like Malta, Hong Kong, and Mauritius. Secrecy jurisdictions are places where businesses or individuals can escape financial rules, regulations, and laws of other jurisdictions through the use of shadow accounts and other secretive measures. These companies extracted billions of dollars’ worth of consulting jobs, loans, and public contracts from the Angolan government.
Western consulting firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Boston Consulting played a crucial role in aiding and abetting the dos Santos kleptocratic empire. Large companies and state enterprises from China and the Netherlands maintained partnerships with the dos Santos family even after other international banking firms like Barclays and Citigroup Global Markets Ltd. pulled out of deals due to heightened scrutiny and concerns over the close connections between Isabel and her husband’s business accounts with the Angolan state.
Denial and Counterattack
Isabel and her husband, who currently live in the UK, have not been formally indicted, but civil and criminal proceedings have been opened against them, according to Angola’s public prosecutor’s office.
They have maintained their innocence, claiming the accusations against them are politically motivated, and have enlisted the services of lawyers and reputation managers.
In interviews with the media, Isabel has even suggested she might run for president of Angola in 2022.