Angola's billionaire former first daughter Isabel dos Santos has been charged with money laundering and mismanagement during her stewardship of state-owned oil firm Sonangol.
Documents leaked this week alleged the daughter of ex-president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, plundered state coffers to build her fortune, estimated at $2.1 billion.
Isabel dos Santos is accused of mismanagement and embezzlement of funds during her tenure at Sonangol and is thus charged in the first instance with the crimes of money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management ... forgery of documents, among other economic crimes," prosecutor general Helder Pitta Gros told a news conference late Wednesday.
Investigations into Isabel dos Santos's 18-month tenure as Sonangol head from June 2016 were opened after her successor Carlos Saturnino raised the alarm about "irregular money transfers" and other dodgy procedures.
Dubbed Africa's richest woman, Isabel dos Santos is accused of using her father's backing to plunder state funds from the oil-rich but poor southern African country and moving the money abroad with the help of Western firms.
She stopped living in Angola after her father, who ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 40 years, stepped down in 2017 for his anointed successor Joao Lourenco.
Gros said dos Santos was among five suspects, all of whom were currently residing abroad.
"At the moment, the concern is to notify and get them to voluntarily come to justice," said Gros.
Africa’s richest woman and Angola’s ex-first daughter Isabel dos Santos expressed interest on Thursday in running for the presidency despite an asset freeze and accusations of diverting more than a billion dollars of state money.
It was the first time the daughter of former president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ran Angola for 38 years until Joao Lourenco took the helm in 2017, has mooted entering politics.
Asked in an interview with Portuguese TV channel RTP whether she would be interested in the role of president, which is next up in 2022, dos Santos said: “It’s possible”.
Lourenco has cracked down on the role of his predecessor’s children, firing dos Santos from her job chairing oil firm Sonangol and her brother from the sovereign wealth fund.
The 46-year-old businesswoman nicknamed “The Princess” at home is estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth more than $2 billion, while two thirds of her compatriots live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.
In the past, she has consistently identified herself as an entrepreneur, not a politician.
Dos Santos, her husband Sindika Dokolo and associate Mario Leite da Silva were subject to an asset freeze on Dec. 31 after accusations of steering more than $1 billion from Sonangol and official diamond trader Sodiam to firms where they held stakes.
She denies the allegations as a “witch hunt” forming part of an attempt to erase her father’s legacy and distract from failures under the new government.
In the RTP interview, she framed the accusations not just as an attack on her family but as a campaign against future candidates for office.
“We cannot use corruption, or the supposed fight against corruption, in a selective way to neutralise who we think could be future political candidates,” she said.
“It’s about the fight for power.”
Internal leadership elections for the ruling MPLA party, from which Lourenco and the dos Santos family hail, are set for 2021. Dos Santos told Reuters in an interview last week that economic doldrums mean a candidate from the rival UNITA party stands a real chance of winning the national poll in 2022.
Dos Santos, who lives abroad, divides opinion in Angola.
Supporters see her as an inspiring entrepreneur, while detractors say she embodies African corruption, with her fortune and Instagram-published jet-setting offensive to the poor.
Dos Santos holds significant stakes in several important Portuguese firms, including in Eurobic bank, telecoms company NOS, engineering company Efacec, and oil and gas company Galp Energia.
African cities like Luanda in Angola is experiencing a population boom, and is growing exponentially. And subsequently, business is growing - making it one of the world's most expensive cities for expats.
The Angolan government has been introducing several initiatives to encourage investment and business opportunities in the oil rich country since former president, José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down.
The first new president in 38 years, João Lourenço, took over at the end of 2017. One of his first initiatives was to relax the visa requirements for countries like Botswana, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Zimbabwe and notably Singapore.
Citizens from Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, the Cape Verde, Rwanda and Zambia can enter Angola without having to apply for a business or tourist visa.
“It is clearly an effort by the Angolan government to encourage business and investments into the country, and to alleviate the unavailability of foreign currency in the country and the challenges behind that,” says Tarissa Wareley, immigration specialist at Xpatweb.
She says another innovative decision is to allow people to conduct business under a tourist visa.
This is a concession to investors from countries who are still required to enter the country with a visa. “A tourist visa will now suffice, even though visitors will be doing business or negotiating investments.”
Wareley says the government has also extended the validity of the tourist visa from 90 days to 120 days. The introduction of e-visa applications has streamlined the process to allow for easy access into the country. The e-visa will be issued within 24 hours. The normal processing times for visas range anything between two to three weeks.
If there is an urgent need for a business or investors to enter Angola it will no longer be subjected to this delay.“It allows business people and potential investors the opportunity to be first in the market if there are new opportunities,” says Wareley.
The government is also allowing foreign nationals to partner with an Angolan national to set up a business, without having to invest at least $500,000. According to the World Bank the oil sector accounts for one-third of Angola’s GDP and more than 90% of exports. Given the importance of the sector the government has adopted a more lenient approach towards short-term visas. The validity of these “emergency visas” has been extended from seven days with an additional seven days to a total of 20 days (initial 10 days with an additional 10 days).
Companies generally apply for a short-term visa when they have, for example, urgent maintenance requirements on an offshore oil or gas rig which requires the attention of a specialist technician. Companies, who pay a corporate income tax rate of 30%, have been subjected to harsh penalties because they exceeded the number of days allowed under the emergency visa.
“The additional days would reduce the possibility of receiving penalties and can lead to major cost savings for companies.
”These changes to the visa requirement regime in Angola are important for any investor or company wishing to set up operations in Angola, wanting to invest in the country or increase their business operations in the country.“We hope that streamlining the work permit process will be the next priority to allow for quicker processes times to obtain a work visa,” says Wareley.
Isabel dos Santos, Africa's richest woman and the daughter of former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, said her businesses in Angola are set to fail after a court froze her assets and bank accounts in the oil-producing country.
"Freezing my accounts prevents me from being able to manage and recapitalize my companies," Dos Santos, who has been living outside Angola since 2018, said in an emailed statement. "As such, they have all but been sentenced to death."
The 46-year-old London-educated engineer amassed a fortune during her father's almost four-decade rule and has an estimated net worth of about $2 billion, Bloomberg data shows. In Angola, her business empire includes stakes in Angola's biggest mobile telecommunications company Unitel, two of the country's biggest private lenders, Banco de Fomento Angola and Banco BIC, a supermarket chain, a beer factory and a cable company.
Outside Angola, Dos Santos holds indirect stakes in several companies, including Portuguese oil company Galp Energia SGPS and cable company NOS SGPS.
Earlier this week, an Angolan court placed a freezing order on the Angolan assets of Dos Santos, her husband Sindika Dokolo, and one of her executives, Mario da Silva. The nation's Attorney General accuses the three of engaging in transactions with state-owned companies that led to the government incurring losses of $1.14 billion.The move marks another step in President Joao Lourenco's bid to battle graft and dismantle the influence of his predecessor's family over key industries.
Since Lourenco took power in 2017, Jose Filomeno, Isabel's brother, has been fired as the head of Angola's sovereign wealth fund and accused of illegally transferring $500 million from Angola's central bank to the U.K. Their sister, Welwitschia dos Santos, recently lost her seat as a member of parliament after leaving Angola.
Isabel dos Santos, whose wealth and influence earned her the nickname "The Princess," has accused Lourenco of carrying out a witch hunt against her family and insists that her wealth has been the product of hard work and determination. She said she created more than a dozen companies in Angola that collectively employed more than 10,000 people, whose jobs were now at risk.
"I was given no opportunity to respond to the charges which, so far as we are even able to understand them, appear to be wholly bogus," she said. "We are concerned that the so-called charges may be based on fabricated documents."
Even so, the clamp-down against Dos Santos has been welcomed by some in Angola, where poverty is rife despite the nation's oil and diamond riches and resentment has been stoked by the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a politically connected elite. The southern African nation is ranked one of the world's most corrupt nations by Transparency International.
"The idea that they are being the target of a witch hunt is hard to accept when many of them have been living the good life and never seemed to be worried when others were being prosecuted," said Paulo Carvalho, a sociology professor at Agostinho Neto University in Luanda, the Angolan capital. "The freezing order is aimed at preventing the transfer or sale of some of these assets and won't interfere with the day-to-day business of these companies."Dos Santos said she would fight the injustice that had been perpetrated against her and warned the court ruling would send the wrong message to international investors.
"If this judgment is allowed to stand it shows that the justice system is flawed and the government is prepared to abuse it for their own ends," she said. "This is a smokescreen to mask the flawed economic policy which the current government have introduced."
Allegations made by the Angolan attorney general include that:
- The state, through its diamond-marketing company Sodiam and oil company Sonangol, transferred large sums of foreign currency to foreign companies -- of which the ultimate beneficiaries were the individuals facing the court order -- without securing the expected returns.
- Sonangol paid 75.1 million euros ($83.8 billion) to buy a stake in Galp Energia indirectly held by Dos Santos and her husband. Shortly before Dos Santos was fired as Sonangol's chairwoman in 2017, she tried to repay the consideration received for the stake in Angolan kwanzas but Sonangol's new board returned the money and asked that payment be made in euros. It was never received.
- Dos Santos and her husband entered a 50-50 joint venture with state-owned diamond company Sodiam to invest in Geneva-based jewelry maker De Grisogono. Sodiam ended up paying most of the initial 120 million-euro loan that was taken to fund the investment.
- Former President Dos Santos ordered Sodiam to sell diamonds to companies related to the individuals notified in the court order at below market prices. They then sold the gems abroad and generated hefty profits.
- The three individuals sought to hide assets bought with state funds by transferring them to other entities. Almost all of their assets were alleged to be held outside of Angola.
- Portuguese police blocked a 10-million-euro bank transfer from a Portuguese bank to Russia that Dos Santos tried to carry out through her business partner Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento.
- Dos Santos tried to sell her 25% stake in Unitel to a foreign investor.
The son of the man who ruled Angola for 38 years has gone on trial for corruption in a rare case of such a high-profile official being taken to court.
José Filomeno dos Santos and his co-accused helped spirit $0.5bn (£0.4bn) out of the country during his time as head of Angola's Sovereign Wealth Fund, prosecutors say.
They have both pleaded not guilty.
The case is seen as a test of Angola's commitment to fight corruption.
It is an extraordinary moment for a famously corrupt, impoverished and oil-rich country, says BBC Southern Africa correspondent Andrew Harding.
José Eduardo dos Santos was president from 1979 until he resigned in 2017 to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco, who is from the same governing party, the MPLA.
What has happened to the former first family?
The fortunes of the family of the former president, who had allowed corruption to flourish during his rule, changed after he stepped down, our reporter says.
After coming to power, Mr Lourenço abruptly turned against the Dos Santos clan and promised reforms and a clean-up, he says.
The new president fired another of his predecessor's children, Isabel dos Santos, Africa's richest woman, from her position as head of the state oil giant Sonango in November 2017 over alleged embezzlement.
Ms Dos Santos denies any wrongdoing. She now lives abroad after saying that her life had been threatened.
In 2017, she told the BBC that she faced prejudice because of who she was.
The former president is also believed to have left the country. This is the first time that a member of the Dos Santos family has been taken to court.
José Filomeno dos Santos, also known as Zenu, spent seven months in jail over the corruption allegations before being freed in March.
He was appointed head of the $5bn sovereign wealth fund in 2013 when his father was in power but was removed in 2017.
Mr Dos Santos appeared before the Supreme Court on Monday in the capital, Luanda, along with three co-defendants, who also face charges of money laundering and embezzlement - one of them is former central bank governor Valter Filipe da Silva.
Two years into his presidency, Angolan leader João Lourenço is treading a difficult course between continuity and radical reform.
Faced with a persistent economic crisis, the new president needs to take bold action to open up the economy to competition and renewed foreign investment, and reduce the country’s dependency on oil.
To do so, he has to loosen the stranglehold of the country’s elites on key sectors of the economy. These are competing networks of interests within the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the security forces that the previous president, José Eduardo dos Santos, had carefully cultivated in his 38 years in power, by using the country’s vast oil revenues. This political dispensation resulted in, among other things, wasteful spending, inefficiency, the establishment of politically connected monopolies and large-scale embezzlement.
But to loosen that stranglehold, Lourenço relies on continued support from the MPLA, and so he cannot openly antagonise all these different interests at once but rather has to advance very cautiously.
The initial euphoria that accompanied Lourenço’s new presidency has ebbed away. Angolans are faced with the stark realities of a profoundly dysfunctional political economy that has proved more resistant to change than they had hoped for.
Yet things started out so well. Lourenço entered the 2017 electoral contest as the MPLA’s lead candidate to succeed dos Santos. He campaigned under the motto
improve what is good, change what is bad.
Seen as a dos Santos loyalist and a man of continuity, he at first failed to ignite much enthusiasm. The MPLA won the elections with 61% of the vote – a result that was contested by the opposition. Still, the outcome reflected a reduced dominance for the party, which has governed the country since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975.
But Lourenço stands accused of dithering and being indecisive. And the promises of change he made when he took over have yet to translate into improvements in the living conditions of a majority of Angolans.
Shortly after his swearing in, Lourenço surprised everyone, including his critics, when he started using the almost absolute constitutional powers of the president to unleash a dizzying flurry of dismissals that swept away many old dos Santos allies. Most prominently, he removed dos Santos’ children from most of their positions of economic influence. He even allowed criminal investigations into their dealings to be launched.
Lourenço also opened up state media to more diverse and critical voices, and invited dissidents, jailed and persecuted under dos Santos, to the presidential palace. He even recently decorated two prominent human rights activists with a medal of national merit.
These actions were truly noteworthy in the context of a country in which open expression of political dissent had been curtailed by a pervasive “culture of fear” and active repression.
But it’s the failure to improve peoples’ lives that has led to disappointment.
When the price of crude oil on world markets dropped, in late 2014, from about $110 to under $50, the country was plunged into a deep economic crisis from which it has yet to recover.
The crisis revealed how fragile and unsustainable Angola’s miracle growth of the preceding decade had been. While oil prices have gradually recuperated this year, the situation continues to be dire. The cost of living has soared. And the national currency, the kwanza, continues to consistently lose value.
Despite the spectacle of high-profile dismissals that followed immediately after Lourenço took power, it appears that entrenched economic interests are prevailing. Some even claim that rather than truly clearing out the stables, he is simply replacing one network of elites with a new one, albeit with some significant overlaps with the previous one.
Doubts about his commitment to rooting out corruption have been voiced in light of his handling of former vice-president Manuel Vicente, who faced corruption charges in Portugal. Lourenço negotiated with the Portuguese judicial authorities that he be tried in Angola, under his country’s laws. But, once the case was transferred to Angola, the country’s attorney general declared that as a former vice-president, Vicente enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Vicente went on to become Lourenço’s advisor for the oil sector, a low-profile but highly influential position.
Similarly, in a major corruption case involving the Sovereign Wealth Funds, the former president’s son, José Filomeno “Zénú” dos Santos, and his partner Jean-Claude Bastos were set free. This was after the alleged recovery of the embezzled assets, raising questions about impunity for the political elites.
Finally, while international attention is largely focused on the economy, the militarised crackdown on any demands for greater political and economic autonomy in the oil-rich province of Cabinda continues.
Austerity the wrong remedy
The approval of an extended fund facility from the International Monetary Fund has been hailed as one of Lourenço’s great successes. But Angolan economists are sceptical about its impact. They say that orthodox economic recipes such as austerity measures and the introduction of value added tax would hit the population hard.
More importantly, the facility failed to address the structural problems of the economy, which are a consequence of years of corruption and inefficient, wasteful spending.
The real issue to Angolans remains why their former leaders have been allowed get away with stashing the country’s wealth offshore for so long.
Angola is attracting renewed interest from Chinese business owners since it lifted curbs on money transfers, following an exodus of tens of thousands of Chinese amid an economic crisis.
Africa’s second-largest oil producer introduced foreign-exchange policies that have made it easy to transfer money legally, Xu Ning, chairman of the Angola-China Industrial and Commerce Association, said in an interview in the capital, Luanda. That’s drawing a “new group” of companies from China to Angola, mainly in the industrial sector, he said.
“The new government is doing things that make it safe to invest in Angola,” Xu said. “We’re much better than before.”
Angola has had the highest number of Chinese workers of any country in sub-Saharan Africa for almost a decade, reaching a peak of 50,526 in 2013, data from John Hopkins University’s China-Africa Research Initiative show. These figures don’t include traders, shopkeepers and independent business owners.
More than 100,000 Chinese workers, traders and businessmen left the country after the 2014 oil-price crash triggered an economic crisis and froze most construction projects, according to Xu. Relying on oil for more than 90% of exports, Angola kept a tight grip on its currency even as dollars ran dry, leaving hundreds of companies struggling to pay overseas suppliers.
Under President Joao Lourenco, who assumed office two years ago, the central bank eased restrictions on money transfers and it’s become more appealing for businesses to get dollars from official channels, according to Xu. Today, the official exchange rate for the kwanza is 369 per dollar, compared to a black-market rate of 530 per dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares to an official rate of about 166 kwanza per dollar and a street rate that was twice as high in September 2017.
Another significant change is that Angolan immigration officials have stopped arbitrarily detaining Chinese nationals and that the police responds to and acts on complaints, Xu said.
Chinese investors have been kidnapped in the past or fallen victim to other crimes, China’s ambassador to Angola, Gong Tao, told reporters on Tuesday, without giving details.
Angola’s public debt to China currently stands at $22.8 billion, with recent direct investments including an assembly plant for fishing vessels, an aluminum factory and a brewery, he said.
An Angolan ex-transport minister was last week jailed for 14 years for corruption, making him the first high profile official to be convicted since President Joao Lourenco took office two years ago.
The Supreme Court found Augusto da Silva Tomas, who was minister under former leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, guilty of six counts including corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and abuse of power.
Tomas, who was arrested in September last year, is the first most senior former government official to be convicted and jailed for corruption under president Lourenco who has pledged to curb graft.
Judge Joel Leonardo, handed down what he described as a “fair” sentence after the court found that Tomas and his accomplices “unscrupulously appropriated public money for personal economic and financial gains, emptying the state coffers”.
He was found guilty, along with other officials, of diverting millions of dollars of state funds from the state-owned shipping regulatory organization to their private companies when he was minister during the reign of Dos Santos who ruled Angola for 38 years until 2017.
Dos Santos’s successor, President Lourenco who came to power in 2017 has vowed to fight corruption and rebuild the economy of the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
He has removed many figures associated with the previous regime, including deposing Dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel from the helm of state oil giant Sonangol.
As Angola works in attracting foreign investors from the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, its closest African neighbours are also entering the race to tap into vast investment opportunities in Africa’s second biggest oil producing market.
Beyond the traditional African oil players, most of them coming from Nigeria, South African companies have increasingly showed interest in regionalizing and expanding their businesses beyond their home country. President João Lourenço chose South Africa as his first state visit destination as President, which was followed in 2018 by a South African trade and investment mission to Luanda.
While Mozambique’s LNG mega projects are seen for many South African construction, services and supply companies as very attractive and nearby opportunities, a sizeable and expanding market like Angola has also appeared on their radar in recent years.
It is notably the case of South Africa’s state-owned giants like the Central Energy Fund (CEF), in charge of both developing a robust domestic energy market and securing the energy supplies South Africa needs to support its growing economy. Under the Integrated Resources Plan set to be adopted by the country this year, 8,100MW of additional gas-to-power capacity is to be added in South Africa by 2030. South Africa also remains sub-Saharan Africa’s largest refiner and is planning additional refining and petrochemicals units that will all require crude oil and natural gas supplies that do not exist domestically.
It is hence no surprise that Angola, with its lucrative opportunities and reformed business environment, will be hosting a strong delegation of South African companies during the upcoming Angola Oil & Gas Conference 2019, set to be held in Luanda on June 4-6. The summit is organized by Africa Oil & Power and endorsed by the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Petroleum of Angola.
“The economic reforms passed by President Lourenço and the opening of wide swaths of oil and gas acreage constitute the single biggest exploration opportunity in the history of Angola,” said Guillaume Doane, CEO of Africa Oil & Power. “This is a new era for Angola that will herald the arrival of several new entrants to the market.”
Amongst the new entrants, the Strategic Fuel Fund (SFF), a CEF group company, will be present to look into the various licenses and blocks Angola has to offer. The state-owned entity already recently became owner and operator of South Sudan’s Block B2 under an exploration & production sharing agreement (EPSA) signed in Juba this month, and is keen to continue securing additional assets and reserves across Africa’s key oil markets that can benefit South Africans.
“The Strategic Fuel Fund seeks to invest in and acquire key oil & gas assets across Africa that can be of important interest to the host countries and South Africa” declared Godfrey Moagi, CEO of the SFF. “In our quest for attractive assets with vast resource potential, we believe Angola offers the right kind of environment, mature fields and political leadership needed to realize successful ventures.”
Angola has indeed just released a new oil licensing strategy up to 2025, and is about to launch for the first time a bidding round that includes marginal oil fields with an attractive fiscal framework. Oil concessions are now overseen by a new and independent agency, the ANPG, which took this responsibility over from state-owned Sonangol in a move to make the process more efficient and transparent.
“The ambitious reform agenda of President João Laurenço and Minister of Mineral Resources and Petroleum Dr. Diamantino Pedro Azevedo is proving successful in building up investors’ trust and confidence,” said Centurion Law Group CEO and AEC Executive Chairman NJ Ayuk. “It is very encouraging to see major African players coming to Angola from across the continent. This is very promising for the growing African energy cooperation and the development of our industry.”
The African Energy Chamber (AEC) is the only Africa-wide association that represents all aspects of Africa’s oil and gas industry. The AEC represents more than 120 partner companies involved in all aspects of the African energy industry. Its Angola operations are overseen and represented by Sergio Pugliese.
Angola’s economy is likely to emerge from recession this year, growing at 0.3% after three years of contraction, and the debt-to-GDP ratio will fall to around 70%, Moody’s Investors Service said.
The debt burden remains vulnerable to further exchange rate depreciation given the stock of foreign-currency and foreign-currency linked debt as well as the risk of fiscal consolidation fatigue, Moody’s said in an emailed statement.
"The implementation of the IMF program and the government’s efforts to clear arrears, improve dollar liquidity and enhance budget implementation, will support Angola’s economy," Aurelien Mali, a Moody’s Vice President, said.
Reforms planned for this year, including the introduction of a value added tax to broaden the non-oil tax base, will further increase the likelihood of fiscal surpluses while oil prices remain around their current levels, Moody’s said.