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Isabel dos Santos did not loot Angola alone

NEWS ANALYSIS

“The world is still full of prejudice,” said Isabel dos Santos, speaking to a receptive audience at the London School of Economics in 2017. By then she was already Africa’s richest woman, worth more than $2-billion, but she wanted the audience to know that she hadn’t always had it easy. “Either you are too young to do something. Or too smart and too privileged. Or then you are a girl, you are the wrong gender.”

The key to surmounting these obstacles, she said, was self-belief. “You mustn’t lose focus on who you are, your identity. Your identity is key. You have to believe in yourself to fight all kinds of discrimination.”

As she spun her oft-told story, Dos Santos got one thing right: identity really is the key. Never more so than for the daughter of one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, whose vast wealth is linked directly to the enormous power her family wielded over an oil-rich country.

On Sunday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and partner publications released information from a trove of documents — the Luanda Leaks — leaked by someone at the heart of Dos Santos business empire. And what an empire it is: more than 400 companies in 41 countries are linked to Dos Santos or her husband, Sindika Dokolo. These include banks, telecoms companies, media organisations and shell companies in tax havens.

The story that Dos Santos tells about herself — a story echoed over the years in too many flattering, uncritical profiles engineered by a sophisticated publicity operation — is that of a smart, driven, self-made entrepreneur. As she told another London audience in 2017: “I’ve been managing companies for a long time, starting them from small, building them up, going through every single stage of what it takes for a company to be successful.”

Although there is no doubt that Dos Santos is both smart and driven — can you imagine either of the Mugabe boys managing a corporate empire, no matter how many contracts were handed to them? — this was never the real secret of her success.

As the ICIJ reported: “Left unmentioned in London: That she had been installed in the top job at Sonangol by her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, the longtime Angolan autocrat. That over the years he had awarded her companies public contracts, tax breaks, telecom licenses and diamond-mining rights. And that even as she spoke to the crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs, she was paving the way for one of her most brazen insider deals — the payment of tens of millions of dollars from the state oil monopoly to a company in Dubai controlled by her business partner.”

This extensive reporting makes it abundantly clear that Isabel dos Santos did not create her own wealth. If these allegations are to be relied on, then she stole it.

Dos Santos has vehemently denied the allegations. “The ICIJ report is based on many fake documents and false information, it is a coordinated political attack in coordinations with the ‘Angolan Government’. 715 thousand documents read? Who believes that? #icij #lies,” she tweeted.

Dos Santos stuck to her old story. “I build companies and enterprises, I invest and create jobs. This where my wealth comes from: BUSINESSES.”

But the truth is that these allegations are not new, but build on years of investigative journalism that has repeatedly exposed “Africa’s richest woman” as a fraud. No one with even a cursory understanding of Angolan politics could be under any illusion that dos Santos’s money was clean. This very newspaper called it as early as 2012, describing Isabel dos Santos and her brother, José Filomeno — then head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund — as “heirs to a private business empire called Angola”.

As D Qaresma dos Santos [no relation] wrote earlier this month for Maka Angola, the award-winning investigative journalism unit that has done more than any other publication in exposing corruption at the heart of the Dos Santos regime: “For years, evidence had made its way into the public domain showing that Isabel Dos Santos’s entire business empire was built on privileged access to Angolan state funds, including seed money ‘lent’ to her by Angola’s state oil company, Sonangol, which was never repaid.”

Exposing this evidence came at great risk to whistleblowers, and great personal cost to Maka Angola’s founder and editor, Rafael Marques de Morais: “It was Rafael Marques who constantly faced politically motivated harassment, arrest, ill treatment, imprisonment and threats against his life,” D Qaresma dos Santos added.

But while Marques and others were risking their lives to expose corruption on a global scale, a network of Western firms were — once again — using their vast expertise to facilitate the looting of the state. 

All four of the big accounting firms — Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC — did work for Dos Santos companies. PwC played the biggest role, helping set up companies in Malta, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and offering “creative” advice on how to avoid taxes. Two of the big consulting firms, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey — both of whom continued to work with the government of Saudi Arabia, even after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — made millions by offering strategic advice to Dos Santos-linked entities.

This work continued even after major banks — including Barclays, Citibank, Deutsche Bank and Santander — cut ties to the Dos Santos empire, over concerns about the source of the money. In other words: the likes of PwC, McKinsey and Boston Consulting knew exactly what they were signing up for, and chose to proceed anyway. They are complicit.

Angola has said it is pushing for the extradition of Isabel dos Santos to face charges at home. There is no doubt that this would be a big win for new president João Lourenco and his much-publicised anticorruption drive; and, in that sense, Dos Santos may not be far wrong when she describes the release of the evidence against her as a “co-ordinated political attack”. 

That does not invalidate this evidence, however, which shows conclusively how the Dos Santos family looted the state they were supposed to be governing — and how Western firms helped them every step of the way.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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