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Uncertain future for dos Santos empire

Uncertain future for dos Santos empire

Isabel dos Santos speaks at a conference

Isabel dos Santos rose to become Africa’s richest woman under her father’s rule, but the current Angolan government’s pursuit of criminal claims against her poses a threat to her assets in the country. Shoshana Kedem reports

In 2001, as Angola’s murderous civil war boiled towards its close, President José Eduardo dos Santos awarded a telecoms licence for the country’s second mobile operator to a consortium of three companies without a public tender. Among them was the state oil firm, Sonangol, and another company partly owned by his daughter Isabel dos Santos.

The acquisition formed an early block in a business empire spanning telecoms, oil, property and other sectors in Angola and Portugal that dos Santos has built with her Congolese husband, Sindika Dokolo. Widely regarded as Africa’s richest woman, she was estimated to be worth $2.2bn by Forbes magazine. Under the rule of her father her rise seemed unstoppable, and in 2016 she was appointed chairwoman of Angola’s state owned oil company Sonangol. 

However, since the retirement of her father in 2017, dos Santos’ fortunes have deteriorated considerably as the new government of Joao Lourenço pursues a decisive break with the past. Shortly after Lourenço’s succession, dos Santos was sacked as chairwoman of Sonangol. In December, the Angolan authorities froze her assets in the country in connection with its claim that she and her husband had steered state assets worth $1bn into companies that they owned or had a stake in. On 22 January, the country’s attorney general provisionally charged her with embezzlement and money laundering during her time at Sonangol.

Only a few days before, some of the world’s leading media outlets, including the BBC, the Guardian of London and the New York Times, had reported allegations that dos Santos had moved hundreds of millions of dollars of public money into a labyrinth of 400 companies and subsidiaries, many of them in offshore jurisdictions around the world. The allegations were based on a cache of 715,000 leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), known as the Luanda Leaks.

Isabel dos Santos has denied all wrongdoing and accuses the Angolan government of a witch-hunt. But as the Angolan authorities conduct a criminal investigation to decide whether she should be formally charged, the future of her business empire is in doubt.

Vulnerable assets

Her assets, bank accounts and companies in the Southern African petro-state are vulnerable to acquisition by the Angolan authorities, says Gonçalo Falcão, who heads the Angola practice of US law firm Mayer Brown.

“Most of her companies are profitable and solid, and they are very important in the markets where they operate. Most likely the state will acquire the shares and reprivatise the companies through public tenders, and there will be buyers for those companies because most of them are profitable,” he says.

Dos Santos could lose possession of valuable assets, including a 25% stake in Unitel (which in turn holds a 51% stake in Banco Fomento de Angola) estimated by Forbes to be worth $250m and a 42.5% stake in Angolan bank Banco BIC worth $185m.

But the companies and subsidiaries themselves, which employ around 20,000 people and support over 30,000 small businesses, will not be impacted by potential seizures, Falcão predicts.

“Her empire will be progressively erased, but the companies she invested in, in my view are not in danger because most of them are profitable, and have a life of their own despite her being a shareholder,” he adds.

Extradition fight

While dos Santos risks losing her Angolan assets, attempts to extradite her to Angola, should the authorities request it, are likely to prove complicated.

With legal action pending in Angola, she is unlikely to voluntarily return to the country any time soon. She is currently said to spend a lot of time in the UK, where she owns property. According to documents filed in the Maltese trade register reviewed by Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso, she assumed Russian citizenship last year.

Although no bilateral extradition agreement exists between Angola and the UK, the possibility that she could be sent to Angola to face charges cannot be ruled out, says Andrew Smith, a legal partner at London-based law firm Corker Binning who specialises in international business crime, fraud and regulatory litigation.

“Multilateral treaties such as the UN Convention Against Corruption contain extradition provisions and ad hoc arrangements can always be entered into, particularly in high-profile cases such as this one. But ad hoc arrangements require a degree of political negotiation, and that would take time to accomplish.”

Meanwhile, there is a “high risk” her assets and properties in London could be seized, Smith says, “especially as unexplained wealth orders and account freezing orders are becoming increasingly common weapons in the armoury of UK law enforcement.”

Problems in Portugal

With much of dos Santos’ estimated $2.2bn fortune vested in Portuguese companies, she also faces a fight to retain her assets in that jurisdiction. On 10 February Spanish lender Abanca said it had agreed to buy 95% of the shares in EuroBic, in which dos Santos held a 42.5% share. A day later, dos Santos’ bank accounts, including those in EuroBic, were frozen by Lisbon following a request by the Angolan authorities.

Her other holdings in the country include shares in Portuguese telecoms firm NOS and engineering firm Efacec and a stake of around 6% in Portuguese oil and gas firm Galp worth about $830m. These assets could be forfeited if investigators find the ultimate source of the funds that dos Santos used to acquire assets to be ill-gotten, Falcão tells African Business from his offices in Rio de Janeiro.

Some of Isabel dos Santos’ biggest Portuguese acquisitions were made between 2009 and 2016, at a time when Portugal was mired in a severe economic crisis, and kept afloat by bailouts from the EU and IMF. As Portugal’s economy floundered, many Portuguese companies headed to Angola to make their fortune, mostly in construction. Few questions were raised about dos Santos’ investments at the time, Falcão says.

“In Portugal when she initially transferred the funds into the national and state banks of Portugal to acquire these companies, no-one asked questions. And when some of these Angolan high profile individuals, like Isabel, started to acquire assets in Angola, it was very difficult to start scrutinising these funds, because that would represent not only losing those funds, but jeopardising the activities of Portuguese companies in Angola.”

Unless the Luanda Leaks unearth revelations that the Portuguese say were not known at the time, not much can be done to seize the assets today, he adds.

In a public statement released in late January, Isabel dos Santos referred to allegations made against her as “misleading and untrue” and characterised the allegations as part of an “orchestrated and well-coordinated political attack, ahead of elections in Angola next year.”

“I am a private businesswoman who has spent 20 years building successful companies from the ground up, creating 20,000 jobs and generating huge tax revenue for Angola,” she wrote.

Advisory firms face questions

As scrutiny of Isabel dos Santos’ activities has increased, Western firms who provided her companies with auditing, restructuring and advisory services are also in the spotlight.

“A cadre of Western business advisers moved money, set up companies, audited accounts, [and] suggested ways to avoid taxes and turned a blind eye to red flags that experts say should have raised serious concern,” writes the ICIJ.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, now called PwC, acted as accountant, consultant and tax adviser for at least 20 companies controlled by Isabel dos Santos or her husband Sindika Dokolo, and ignored red flags, according to money-laundering experts and forensic accountants who reviewed the newly obtained documents.

The firm told African Business that it had launched an investigation into the “serious and concerning allegations that have been raised” and had “taken action to terminate any ongoing work for entities owned by the dos Santos family”.

However, it is “extremely unlikely” that advisory firms will face legal fallout for their involvement, says Prem Sikka, a professor of accounting and finance, at the universities of Essex and Sheffield.

“So far in the entire British history there hasn’t been a single example of one of these big accounting firms, after strong court judgements, ever being investigated, fined, prosecuted or disciplined by their own professional body,” he says. 

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