It’s clear to just about everyone but herself that Angola’s Isabel dos Santos became Africa’s richest woman not through hard work and business acumen, but mainly through all the jobs, contracts and other breaks her father illicitly gave her when he was president.
Even so, is his successor President João Lourenço going after her and her brother out of a sincere desire to clean up Angola’s notorious corruption? Or does he have less honourable motives?
After Dos Santos snr stood down in 2017 and Lourenço took over, he fired Isabel from her job as chairperson of Sonangol, the state oil company. He later fired her half-brother José Filomeno dos Santos from his position as head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund. Since then Lourenço’s administration has pursued them in court for alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars and tried to recover the assets.
Isabel steadfastly protests her innocence, accusing Lourenço of a politically motivated witch hunt against her and her family. She insists she made her fortune – estimated at over US$2 billion – by skill and industry.
She persisted with this narrative even after the recent Luanda Leaks, the publication by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of some 715 000 documents detailing her business dealings. They reveal how her father launched and bolstered her career by awarding her companies public contracts, tax breaks, telecom licences and diamond mining rights.
This undercut her persistent claim to be a self-made business woman. The leaks also show how many Western consultants, banks and other businesses clandestinely supported Isabel’s ventures, including by moving vast amounts of money off-share to tax havens.
Unabashed, she issued a statement saying the ICIJ revelations were ‘completely unfounded.’ ‘This is an orchestrated and well-coordinated political attack by the current regime in Angola, which sees me as a threat,’ she added – the last an apparent reference to her previous vow to run for president against Lourenco.
Her brazenness suggests she believed her munificent father would hand power to someone who would protect his family’s fortunes. And for a time it looked like that would happen. According to independent analyst Paula Roque, just before elections to replace Dos Santos snr, ruling party elders agreed to wipe the slate clean of all graft up to that point, provided no further corruption occurred. This meant no prosecutions for past corruption and no recovery of stolen assets.
But then the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) did worse than expected in the elections and Lourenço’s legitimacy was questioned by widespread allegations of rigging. The Angolan economy was doing badly, mainly because of a plunge in the international oil price and the fact that the corrupt Dos Santos regime had done nothing to shield the country from such fluctuations.
JLo, as Lourenço is nicknamed, decided he needed to go after the hugely unpopular Dos Santos family members and their cronies to shore up his support and that of the MPLA, some analysts believe. Even with the recent Luanda Leaks revelations, questions about Lourenço’s motives and game plan remain valid. Is he really pursuing a vendetta against his predecessor to bolster his own fragile political position?
Is he perhaps creating space at the trough so that his own cronies can enrich themselves? Or is he really cleaning out corruption as a basis for rebuilding the crippled Angolan economy to the benefit of all its people, who remain among the poorest worldwide?
Former journalist and now anti-corruption activist Rafael Marques de Morais, for many years a fierce critic of Dos Santos, told AFP recently that: ‘There is a real will to take back the country … because the state has been privatised by the Dos Santos family and their friends.’ But he believes Lourenço is mounting a lonely crusade, frustrated by an MPLA riddled with corrupt old guard politicians.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, is more sceptical. ‘There are folk around the president that deserve judicial scrutiny and Isabel is correct that there is an arbitrary element to these actions,’ he told ISS Today. ‘Over the last year, as his honeymoon has thinned out, there are also signs that JLo is becoming more reliant on family – especially his brother General Sequeira João Lourenço.’
Vines is by no means sympathetic to Isabel dos Santos’s profession of innocence. When Dos Santos snr stepped down in September 2017, the state of Angola’s economy required JLo to move against the Dos Santos regime’s vast business interests, he says. ‘Angola has been in recession since 2016 and turning around the economy is joint priority No 1, as is ensuring that the MPLA is regenerated and positioned for the next general elections in 2022.’
Nor does Vines believe Lourenço is intent on simply replacing one set of snouts at the trough with another. ‘JLo’s Angola is different. The primary moves against the Dos Santos family were to help JLo consolidate power, reform the economy and renew the party.’ This explains why the original case against José Filomeno dos Santos was dropped once the expatriated funds were repatriated.
Vines says ‘economic recession has stunted the honeymoon for JLo. Many Angolans (especially urban dwellers) are frustrated and want to see progress. JLo has shown himself to be much more sensitive to public opinion than his predecessor and putting the Dos Santos family central in his reform cross hairs plays well.’
Roque agrees that Lourenço has been strategic in his approach. ‘JLo took on the anti-corruption fight to rescue the MPLA and consolidate his own power base. The economy is in a shambles and the country had no international credibility … JLo really had little choice and the anti-corruption mantle served many purposes.’
But hounding the Dos Santos family isn’t enough. Lourenço has also opened up Angola’s political space which was tightly closed under Dos Santos. Unless he can revive the flagging economy, even his political reforms will count against him, giving greater freedom to his opponents to attack him.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant
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