Socialism, capitalism, globalization, the judicialization of politics, and the politicization of justice. The rise and fall of Isabel dos Santos’s empire synthetizes the contradictions of our times.
In 2013, Forbes magazine reported that Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, was Africa’s first woman billionaire. She has always claimed that her fortune is the product of hard work and entrepreneurship, but, two years after her father stepped down in 2017, her empire began to crumble.
On December 30, 2019, the Luanda Provincial Court ordered the freezing of her Angolan bank accounts and the seizure of her shareholdings in local companies Unitel, Banco de Fomento Angola, ZAP, Finstar, Nova Cimangola II, Condis, Continente Angola and Sodiba. The order also applied to her husband, Sindika Dokolo, and their business associate Mário Leite da Silva. The government is hoping to recover US$1.1 billion in losses from the couple and their associate.
Following the release of a trove of more than 700,000 leaked emails and other documents—known as the Luanda Leaks—the Angolan attorney general charged Isabel dos Santos with money laundering, influence peddling, and document forgery. The Portuguese judicial authorities have also opened an investigation against her on suspicion of money laundering.
Socialism: The Origins
“Once upon a time there was a princess whose father ruled a socialist country.” If Isabel dos Santos’s story were a fairy tale, this is how it would start. Whereas Isabel’s business skills are undisputable, she didn’t start her fortune by selling eggs on the streets.
The remote origins of her empire date back to the centralism and dirigisme implemented by the once Marxist–Leninist MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Like other liberation movements, after coming to power the MPLA combined this statist approach and socialist rhetoric with the sacralization of liberation credentials and the centralization of power in the “comrade president” and “architect of peace”, José Eduardo dos Santos. Economic restructuring and diversification were indefinitely delayed in the name of primitive accumulation and rent seeking, benefiting a ruling elite in general and the presidential family in particular.
With the end of José Eduardo dos Santos’s rule, Angola seems to be—albeit slowly and painfully—entering a new era. President João Lourenço has made the restructuring of the economy and the war on corruption his top priorities, and on the corruption front his efforts are paying off. In 2019, the country moved up 19 places in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
Some people who were close to the former president are cooperating with the Asset Recovery Service, including former vice president Manuel Vicente; General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Jr, known by the nickname Kopelipa; and Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento, a.k.a. General Dino.
Capitalism: Building an Empire
Isabel dos Santos wanted more than a lavish lifestyle, unlike María Gabriela Chávez Colmenares, daughter of the former Venezuelan president; Chatunga Mugabe, son of the former Zimbabwean president; and Teodorin Obiang, son of the former president of Equatorial Guinea. She wanted to have it all, and so the story of her empire is also a story of contradictions. What made her fortune possible was, first and foremost, a centralized economy where the state, embodied in the president, played the leading role in the economy. However, this fortune was multiplied thanks to the logics and institutions of capitalism.
Isabel constructed the image of a woman embodying initiative, entrepreneurship, and hard work. She talks about creating wealth, jobs, opportunities, and empowering women (which, to be fair, she also did), and making Angola a prosperous and competitive economy. In a recent interview with the BBC, she defined herself as an economically oriented woman coming from the private sector, and not an insider in Angolan politics.
In fact, Isabel not only extended her operations to every relevant sector of the Angolan economy, including telecommunications, mining, oil, banking, and retail, but also became a key investor in Portugal.
In 1997, in her early twenties, she created Urbana 2000 and won a contract to manage Luanda’s urban cleaning and sanitation systems. In the late 1990s, José Eduardo dos Santos declared that licenses to operate in the (promising) telecom sector could be granted without a public tender, provided it was a joint venture with the state. The license was given to the recently founded Unitel, where Sonangol had a 25 percent stake and Isabel dos Santos—one of the founders—another 25 percent. Later, Unitel would grant more than US$350 million in funding to Unitel International Holdings (a company controlled by Isabel dos Santos). Part of that money was used by Isabel to enter into the Portuguese telecom market, through the creation of the media company Nos.
The relationship between Isabel and Angola’s state oil company the Sonangol Group—a key focus of the Luanda Leaks—dates back to 2006, when she and her husband became partners of Sonangol through a Netherlands holding company called Esperaza. Esperaza controlled 45 percent of Amorim Energia, which acquired 33.34 percent of the Portuguese Galp Energia, a position worth over US$700 million. However, while Amorim Energia paid US$126 million in dividends to Esperaza (transferred to a Deutsche Bank holding account in the Netherlands), Sonangol allegedly did not receive its share. In 2015, following pressure from Deutsche Bank, the money was transferred to an account at EuroBic (formerly known as Banco Bic) in Lisbon. Banco Bic had been created in 2008 by Isabel dos Santos, Fernando Teles and Américo Amorim. In 2014, Isabel dos Santos had secured a 42.5 percent majority stake in the bank.
In 2010, José Eduardo dos Santos decided to start selling Angolan diamonds abroad. In 2012, the state-owned Sodiam established a partnership with Melbourne Investments (controlled by Sindika Dokolo) to buy the Swiss luxury jeweler De Grisogono. However, whereas Melbourne Investments retained control of the operation, Sodiam paid US$79 million for the acquisition. In order to finance the operation, Sodiam got a US$120 million loan from EuroBic, guaranteed by the Angolan Treasury. According to the Sodiam chairman, the Angolan state has not profited from the venture.
Globalization: Luanda, Dubai, Budapest, Paris, and Gaia
The story of Isabel dos Santos’s fortune is also a product of globalization. Back in the Cold War times, money would often travel the world in suitcases. But four decades later, in a world of globalized capital, money can travel around the world through multiple vehicles in a sequence of rapid and volatile flows that challenge regulators’ capacities. Isabel’s businesses were assisted by top consultancies and legal firms, many of them with a global footprint. Between 1992 and 2019, Isabel dos Santos and Sindika Dokolo held stakes in 423 companies and their subsidiaries. Many were Portuguese (155) and Angolan (99), but their empire was global.
What shook this empire was a decision taken in Luanda in 2016 by the central committee of the ruling MPLA and José Eduardo dos Santos himself: to start a process of leadership change in Angola.
In June 2016, about one year before exiting the presidency, José Eduardo dos Santos appointed his daughter non-executive director and chairwoman of Sonangol, at a time when the company was in deep financial trouble. In November 2017, less than two months after taking office and amid growing political tension, new Angolan president João Lourenço fired Isabel dos Santos from Sonangol.
During the last six months of her tenure, US$115 million was allegedly transferred from the Sonangol account to Matter Business Solutions, a consulting firm in Dubai controlled by Isabel dos Santo’s right-hand man, Mário Leite da Silva. She claims the money was to pay for services provided within the company’s major restructuring plan, as Matter Business Solutions was in charge of coordinating the process that involved services provided by Boston Consulting Group, PricewaterhouseCoopers, McKinsey & Company, and the Portuguese law firm Vieira de Almeida.
But as the dos Santos saga is far from over, a new dilemma—of a juridical, political, and moral nature—is emerging. A substantial part of the information used to accuse Isabel dos Santos comes from a “leakage of information” contained in more than 715,000 files allegedly delivered by a Portuguese hacker to the Paris-based Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), chaired by Edward Snowden’s lawyer William Bourdon. The information was then passed to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). A whistleblower, according to PPLAAF, is “a person who discloses information regarding actions that are unlawful, illicit or against public interest, that he/she has witnessed, especially in the context of his/her work.”
From Paris, let us go to the Portuguese cities of Lisbon and Gaia. A couple of years ago, one of the main Portuguese advocacy firms that provided legal services to Isabel dos Santos was the victim of a cyberattack. Gaia is the city where, at the age of 23 and operating from his personal computer in his family house, Rui Pinto managed to sack €264 million from a bank based in the Cayman Islands. Rui Pinto is known for the “Football Leaks”, which exposed corruption in European football and tax fraud by stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho. Searched by the Portuguese Police, he was extradited from Hungary in 2019. Rui Pinto is now in pre-detention and will be judged for 90 crimes in the “Football Leaks” process, including extorsion attempt, illegitimate access, undue access, violation of correspondence, and computer sabotage. Rui Pinto’s lawyer William Bourdon has declared that Rui Pinto is the only informant behind the Luanda Leaks, as he “accidentally” found information related to Isabel dos Santos’s companies.
Dilemmas of the 21st Century
Tempting as it may be to define Rui Pinto as a martyr fighting for transparency and accountability in Africa, this narrative—which is the one his legal team is trying to construct—lacks credibility. In the meantime, Isabel dos Santos has announced that she will launch legal action against the ICIJ and its media partners assisted by Schillings, a law firm with experience in politically motivated hacking and whose team includes intelligence experts, investigators and cyber specialists.
And so the story of Isabel dos Santos’s empire, whose origins date back to the post-Cold War period, brings us to great dilemmas of the 21st century. First, the judicialization of politics and the politicization of justice. Isabel dos Santos claimed that this was a coordinated and politically motivated attack. In a scenario where it is proved that Rui Pinto didn’t act alone and was moved exclusively by a hunger for justice and transparency, she may score a victory that could negatively impact the image of the post-dos Santos Angola. So far, however, the Angolan executive has the upper hand, as Isabel dos Santos seems willing to negotiate a return of the funds, an outcome which, at the end of the day, would represent a win-win situation.
Second, the Luanda Leaks reveal the urgency of profound reflections, so that we don’t risk being run over by events. Cyber-piracy is a crime punishable by law. In a politically polarized world where hacktivism is on the rise, transforming hackers into heroes may create a dangerous precedent, as offences are judged by their consequences or alleged intentions. Moreover, in constitutional and democratic states, to what extent must the rule of law be sacrificed in the name of what PLAAF describes as “international public interest”? And who, in a world where the local, the national, and the global are in permanent tension, should define what “international public interest” means?
It is too soon to tell how this story will end, as there is a long judicial, political, and information war ahead. What is certain is that we should all take an interest in the Luanda Leaks, given its origins, developments, and potential consequences.
1997 – Isabel creates Urbana 2000 and ventures into Luanda’s urban cleaning and sanitation systems.
2000 – José Eduardo dos Santos pushed for the establishment of Ascorp, a company with the exclusive rights in the commercialization and export of Angolan diamonds. Sodiam controls 51 percent of Ascorp, whereas Trans Africa Investment Services controls 24.5 percent (Isabel dos Santos and her mother, Tatiana Kukanova, control 75 and 25 percent, respectively, of Trans Africa).
December 2006 – Isabel and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, through Exem Energy, become partners of Sonangol in the Esperaza Holding. The Holding had acquired a 45 percent share of Amorim Energia BV, which controlled one-third of the Portuguese Galp Energia.
Sonangol sold 40 percent of its position in the joint venture to Exem (a deal valued at US$99 million).
JANUARY 2007 – Exem pays US$15 million to Sonangol for the 40 percent stake in Esperaza.
2008 – Through a participation in BIC Angola, Isabel dos Santos, along with Américo Amorim and Fernando Teles, founds Banco BIC in Portugal.
2007–2014 – During this period, Amorim Energia paid €126 million in dividends to Esperaza. The money was transferred to a Deutsche Bank account in the Netherlands.
2011 – Isabel dos Santos establishes a deal with Sonae to take the Continente supermarket chain to Angola. Isabel eventually exited the deal and created her own chain, Candando.
May 2012 – Unitel grants the first of several loans (totaling €460 million) to Unitel International Holdings.
2014 – Isabel dos Santos becomes the main shareholder of the EuroBic through Santoro Financial Holdings.
2015 – Niara Holding is awarded part of a contract worth US$4.5 billion to construct the dam and hydroelectric station in Caculo Cabaça. The company belongs to Isabel dos Santos, who enters the project in a partnership with the China Ghezouba Group Company (CGGC).
2015 – Through Winterfell 2 Limited, a company based in Malta, Isabel dos Santos acquires a 65 percent position in the Portuguese Efacec Power Solutions, with operations in Angola and Mozambique.
2015 – After pressure from Deutsche Bank, €124 million from an Esperaza account is transferred to a EuroBic account in Lisbon.
June 2, 2016 – Isabel dos Santos is appointed chairwoman of Sonangol.
June 30, 2017 – Exem Energy sends a letter to the chairwoman of Sonangol informing her of the company’s willingness to pay the total value of the debt (estimated at €72.8 million), on the condition that the payment be made in kwanzas.
August 2017 – The Sonangol board accepts the payment proposal.
November 2017 – Isabel dos Santos is fired from Sonangol.
November 2017 – Esperaza orders a payment of €67 million to Sonangol, a transfer from the EuroBic account in Lisbon.
November 2017 – US$58 million is transferred from a Sonangol account to the Dubai-based Matter Business Solutions.
December 30, 2019 – The Angolan Provincial Court communicates the preventive seizure of Isabel dos Santos’s assets.
January 2020 – The Luanda Leaks information is disseminated by international media.
January 23, 2020 – Isabel dos Santos is formerly accused by the Angolan attorney general.
January 27, 2020 – William Bourdon declares that his client the Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto is the only informant behind the Luanda Leaks.
January 27, 2020 – Isabel dos Santos announces that she is launching legal action against the ICIJ and its media partners.
February 1, 2010 – According to Portuguese media, a source close to the Angolan attorney general says Isabel dos Santos’s legal team is negotiating with Luanda to pay debts contracted with Sodiam and Sonangol.
Teresa Nogueira Pinto is a Phd Candidate in Global Studies and an African Affairs analyst.