By abusing the power of her dictator father, an African female turned into one of the richest individuals in the continent. But ‘Luanda Leaks’ had turned everything upside-down. She is now being investigated by several governments, including her own country – Angola. For Isabel dos Santos, well known as Africa’s wealthiest woman, the fallout was cataclysmic. She once dined with global CEOs and posed on red carpets with presidents, princes and the Hollywood elite. But now, her inner circle and related companies are under criminal investigation in three countries. She is blocked from accessing assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Among dos Santos’ major investments, she was forced to cede control of three companies, at least seven have been seized as part of lawsuits and another is bankrupt.
In January, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and partners in 20 countries published the Luanda Leaks investigation, documenting two decades of inside deals and government giveaways, aided by Western lawyers and advisers, that made Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the southern African country’s long time strongman ruler, enormously rich.
Though Luanda Leaks was a breath of fresh air, it is still a matter of curiosity, how long this African female billionaire will run from post to pillars. Because, in the past, we have seen how corrupt individuals were temporarily rattled by sudden investigations, following leaks, and finally they brought things under control, through various tricks. It will not be wild to assume – Isabel dos Santos didn’t make tons of money without the involvement of her countrymen. It is quite impossible that the daughter of the former dictator had turned every Angolan her slaves of whims and wishes. She certainly has her agents right inside the country – who may have gone low-profile for the time being. But eventually, they will get back to their actions.
In an article on the ICIJ website, journalist Will Fitzgibbon wrote: “Rarely has a billionaire fallen so far, so fast. But in Angola and beyond, the systemic ills the Luanda Leaks investigation brought into focus — corruption, the flight of wealth to offshore centers and a sprawling dark money industry that enables and accelerates the looting of entire nations — remain largely untreated.”
Nightmare in Angola
Angolan President João Lourenço came to power in 2017 promising to fight corruption. No one is too powerful to jail, he said. His administration claims to have traced at least US$24 billion stolen under the previous regime led by dos Santos’ father, José Eduardo dos Santos, and moved swiftly in the wake of Luanda Leaks to take on the ex-president’s daughter, her allies and a handful of former officials. But Lourenço, once a minister in the dos Santos regime, has been less receptive to self-examination.
In protests throughout October and November, crowds blocked streets with burning tires and called for greater transparency within the Lourenço administration. Hundreds of people, some wearing face masks, marched through the capital of Luanda, chanting, waving signs and thrusting their fists in the air. “Angola says enough,” they shouted.
Protestors clamored for the resignation of Edeltrudes Costa, Lourenco’s chief of staff, who allegedly bought luxury homes overseas through offshore bank accounts after receiving a government contract intended to rebuild airports. In response, police unleashed dogs and fired live rounds at protestors. One victim was Inocêncio de Matos, a 26-year-old engineering student and first-time protester, who bled to death on a busy road.
In this extreme turmoil, when Angolan masses were united against corruption, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) did drop the Luanda Leaks bomb, which has devastated the massive empire of Isabel dos Santos and her business cohorts.
Lawyers, advisers and accountants, who opened shell companies, signed off on audits and devised tax avoidance strategies for the billionaire, have walked away. There’s been personal tragedy, as well. In October, dos Santos’ husband Sindika Dokolo, a businessman and art collector also implicated in corrupt schemes revealed by ICIJ reporting, died in a scuba diving accident in Dubai. No one has asked – what Sindika Dokolo was doing in Dubai when the entire world was under Covid-19 massacre. Was it some urgent mission? Did he go to the UAE for quick removal of their hidden wealth to an unknown country?
ICIJ’s reporting showed how professional advisers working in Western nations made it possible for dos Santos to divert her nation’s wealth into personal accounts and ventures. One firm, accounting powerhouse PwC, made more than $1 million advising dos Santos even as corruption allegations flew, and as employees raised — and then ignored — red flags about the movement of money through secrecy havens around the globe. In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Bob Moritz, the head of PwC, said that his company had never before been brought so low. A “shocked and disappointed” Mortiz ordered an investigation.
PwC declined to answer specific questions about that inquiry or what it had found. A spokesperson said that its internal investigation “provided reassurance that the PwC network policies and procedures are sound,” adding that “a number of senior employees have left PwC or been subject to other remedial measures.”
An empire begins to crumble
The reporting team behind Luanda Leaks included journalists from the BBC, The Namibian, the New York Times and Expresso in Portugal. Through much of 2019, reporters scoured a trove of more than 700,000 leaked records related to dos Santos businesses and followed leads in dozens of countries. The documents were shared with ICIJ by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, or PPLAAF, a Paris-based advocacy group.
Toward the end of the year, ICIJ began asking the Angolan government questions about preferential investments, loans and handouts uncovered by reporters. Reaction was swift.
In December 2019, a Luanda court froze hundreds of millions of dollars of dos Santos’ assets, including stakes in banks, a telecom firm and a brewery. The court estimated that dos Santos, Dokolo and a former PwC manager turned dos Santos business adviser had caused Angola to lose more than $1 billion.
Then, on January 22, 2020, one week after ICIJ and its media partners published Luanda Leaks, Angola’s attorney general, Helder Pitta Gros, charged the billionaire and her husband with embezzlement and money laundering.
The accusations relate to dos Santos’ time as head of Sonangol, Angola’s state-owned oil company. According to Angolan prosecutors, whose charges echoed ICIJ’s revelations from leaked emails, invoices and bank statements, dos Santos paid almost $60 million in invoices to a consultancy firm in Dubai owned by a close friend in the weeks and days before dos Santos’ dismissal from Sonangol.
Dos Santos has denied wrongdoing. She accuses Angolan prosecutors of submitting fake documents, including a passport that bears her name but the signature of the martial arts actor Bruce Lee. “This is a political trial, you have a persecuting state and servile and partisan magistrates,” dos Santos said, describing the case against her as a “witch hunt.” Dokolo also denied wrongdoing.
The denials haven’t slowed investigators or mollified business partners.
In February, a court in Lisbon ordered the seizure of dozens of dos Santo’s bank accounts. Portugal, which invaded and colonized Angola in the 16th century, is home to luxury dos Santos’ apartments and the headquarters of much of her corporate empire.
In May, German police seized files from the headquarters of state-owned export bank, KfW IPEX-Bank, as part of a criminal probe. Police are investigating allegations that bank employees misappropriated public funds when granting a $55 million loan to dos Santos’ brewing company, Sodiba, and that the bank failed to properly vet dos Santos, according to ICIJ partners Sudeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR.
As the months passed, dos Santos lost more jewels of her business crown.
Portugal announced the nationalization of dos Santos’ 71.7% stake in Efacec Power Solutions, a company that builds electricity infrastructure around the world. “The cabinet took this decision because Efacec is in a situation of impasse after the ‘Luanda Leaks,’” Economy Minister Pedro Siza Vieira announced on July 2. Dos Santos bought her stake in Efacec in 2015 for about $225 million.
The European Banking Authority, responding to the European Parliament’s request for a probe into Luanda Leaks and any breaches of national or EU law, launched an inquiry.
An Angolan court determined that a deal between Sodiam, Angola’s state-owned diamond company, and a Swiss luxury jewelry firm owned by dos Santos’ husband Dokolo was “fraudulent.”
The terms of the acquisition were enormously favorable to Dokolo. Sodiam pumped tens of millions of dollars into the jewelry company as part of an acquisition that gave Dokolo “full control of the management,” according to documents obtained by ICIJ. The cherry on top: Dokolo got a $4 million “success fee,” drawn from the Angolan state money, for arranging the deal that left him in charge.
To make the loan, Sodiam borrowed $98 million from a bank, Banco BIC — partly owned by dos Santos. Her stake in the bank is estimated to be worth $185 million. De Grisogono was already struggling when Dokolo took control and the investment was effectively lost when the company filed for bankruptcy in the wake of the Luanda Leaks investigation.
Sodiam says that it was misled and that the agreement never benefited Angola.
“By continuing to pay the bank loan, the Angolan State would be benefiting Isabel José dos Santos twice,” the court said. “First, when it asked for credit to create an extremely profitable business for her (Isabel dos Santos) and, now, paying the same credit to the financial institution where…[she] is the biggest effective beneficiary.”
“We are, therefore, in fact, facing yet another situation of illicit enrichment,” the court said.” Dokolo denied wrongdoing and previously told ICIJthat the fee was for “the successful complex negotiations and structuring of the acquisition.”
Schillings, a London-based law firm representing dos Santos, told ICIJ that she had no connections to de Grisogono. The court decision was “a secret trial … made without her knowledge, without any representation, without even the basic legal requirement of being informed” Schillings said.
An asset freeze and more investigations
It was the kind of deal only obtainable to someone with the right pedigree.
Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company, sold a $99 million stake in a Portuguese oil and gas firm called Galp, but only required a $15 million upfront payment. The fortunate buyer: a Dutch company owned by Dokolo called Exem Energy BV. That investment is now worth about $830 million.
In September, Dutch prosecutors froze Exem’s assets. Attorneys representing Sonangol told ICIJ that the oil company hopes to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars that it argues Angola lost due to the deal. A Dutch court, dealing with similar allegations, ordered the removal of a dos Santos lieutenant from Exem’s board and confiscated future dividend payments until the matter is resolved.
Sonangol’s attorneys credited Luanda Leaks with helping connect the dots of who owned what.
“The fact that these documents are in the public domain is incredibly helpful as we would otherwise have no way of finding out,” Sonangol attorney Emmanuel Gaillard said, referring to copies of some of the records that ICIJ made public.
Dos Santos has defended the deal as having “generated a large amount of return for all the parties.” Exem said that the court had made “no findings of wrongdoing” by the company.
By this time, major telecom assets had also started to fall.
Portuguese telecommunications company, Sonae, announced that it had dissolved a joint-venture with dos Santos that saw them together control one of the country’s largest communications and entertainment companies, NOS.
In October, Angolan mobile phone giant Unitel sued dos Santos in a London court. In 2012 and 2013, Unitel, at the time effectively controlled by dos Santos, loaned one dos Santos’ company $431 million to buy shares in a Portuguese firm used to take control of NOS. Unitel now fears that it may be unable to recover its loans.
About the same time, Portugal’s Securities Market Commission announced 84 cases against nine auditing companies that worked with dos Santos. The unnamed companies broke anti-money laundering laws and failed to report transactions even though auditors had “sufficient reasons” to suspect payments “could be related to funds from criminal activities,” the commission said.
The commission, known as CMVM, recommended Portuguese prosecutors open criminal cases against the auditors. Lawyers for dos Santos said the findings related to possible wrongdoing by external companies, not the billionaire herself.
What is the final fate of Isabel dos Santos?
In my personal opinion, like most of those corrupt politicians in the African nations, Angolan President João Lourenço will finally sell his soul to Isabel dos Santos and there certainly will be a compromise between Lourenco and the Santos family. Isabel dos Santos will return to Angola, or maybe she will begin rebuilding another empire sitting in Spain or any other countries.