The noose closes on Angola’s Isabel dos Santos

Whether the country’s poor will benefit from attempts to recover Dos Santos’ enormous stolen loot remains uncertain.

Like South Africa’s infamous Gupta brothers, Isabel dos Santos is believed to be hiding in Dubai from prosecutors who want her for alleged massive theft of public money. The apparently ill-gotten gains of the daughter of Angola’s previous president, the late José Eduardo dos Santos, lie frozen in accounts in many countries.

Her case is becoming a major test of Angolan President João Lourenço’s commitment to unravelling his country’s deeply ingrained corruption. It will also test the resolve of foreign countries to help Angola recover the vast amounts that she and others allegedly stashed abroad. This has implications for other African states.

It was common knowledge for decades that former president Dos Santos, who came to power in 1979, was fleecing Angola’s coffers on an industrial scale. And no one believed his daughter’s claim that she became a multibillionaire through her business acumen.

But it was only after Dos Santos retired as president in 2017 and was succeeded by Lourenço that the proof began to surface. The 2020 Luanda Leaks published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other media confirmed the rumours.

The exposé revealed how Dos Santos had created Isabel’s wealth by awarding her companies, public contracts, tax breaks, telecom licences, diamond mining rights and preferential loans. And by making her chief executive of the state oil company Sonangol – a vital post in a country almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.

The case is a major test of Lourenço’s commitment to unravelling his country’s deeply ingrained corruption

The ICIJ estimated that Isabel dos Santos had stashed at least US$2.1 billion in bank accounts and assets, mostly in Europe – especially Portugal – but also in the United States (US) and Asia. Other estimates go higher. That was when Angolan authorities charged her with money laundering and embezzlement, precipitating a worldwide avalanche of legal actions against her.

Angolan, Portuguese and American authorities froze Dos Santos’s many assets and bank accounts, and they and other jurisdictions launched criminal investigations against her. The US and other governments banned her from entering their countries. Her business empire in Angola and abroad was largely dismantled.

Late last year, INTERPOL issued a Red Notice calling on all governments to provisionally arrest her, pending local legal processes. Dos Santos is believed to be confined to Dubai as the United Arab Emirates has no extradition treaties with Angola or Portugal.

In many ways, the Angolan government’s anti-corruption campaign against Dos Santos and others has so far been exemplary in African terms. Yet the jury must remain out until we see how it ends.

Will Dos Santos ever stand in the dock to face her accusers? And will all the money she allegedly stole ever be recovered and returned to Angola to provide schools, hospitals and other amenities for the country’s millions of paupers?

Karina Carvalho, Head of Transparency International Portugal, has her doubts. Many foreign countries would have to cooperate. But Carvalho told ISS Today that success ultimately depended on the commitment of Lourenço’s administration to clean government and the Angolan judiciary’s independence.

Success depends on Lourenço’s commitment to clean government, and the Angolan judiciary’s independence

Unless the Angolan authorities now moved swiftly and firmly against her, Dos Santos would deplete much of her stolen money paying expensive lawyers to challenge the freezing of her assets. She had already begun doing that, winning a recent judgment in the Portuguese courts to unfreeze her assets in the Portuguese bank EuroBic – a bank prosecutors claimed she established mainly to launder money out of Angola.

How resolutely the Lourenço administration pursues Dos Santos and her wealth depends on its ultimate motivations. Dos Santos claims she’s the victim of a political witch hunt by Lourenço against her family. Carvalho dismisses this, saying simply: ‘They’re going after her because she stole money.’

But this isn’t just a Robin Hood-like moral crusade by Lourenço to recover loot stolen by Dos Santos and many others, and return it to Angola’s poor. For one thing, it’s not just about Dos Santos. Carvalho notes that the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola had always had close ties with Sonangol, and still does. ‘Some of the leading political figures in Angola funded their business deals through Sonangol. Some are still in power.’

That’s why Lourenço is being cautious, she adds. And perhaps reluctant. She notes that it was only after the publication of the Luanda Leaks that Angola laid charges against Dos Santos. And it was also only after media pressure last year that Luanda asked INTERPOL to issue its international arrest warrant.

It was only after the publication of the Luanda Leaks that Angola laid charges against Dos Santos

In her book Governing in the Shadows: Angola’s Securitised State, independent analyst Paula Cristina Roque quotes a former adviser to the late president Dos Santos remarking that: ‘If the anti-corruption drive were real, Lourenço wouldn’t have a government.’

Carvalho insists that the international community has a large role in shutting down the enablers – the consultants, lawyers, accountants and others in Europe and elsewhere who helped Dos Santos move stolen money abroad. Astonishingly, Portugal allowed Dos Santos to establish EuroBic in the country despite her being a ‘politically exposed person.’ Carvalho is pinning some hope that the US Enablers Act, which is weathering stiff resistance in Congress, will be passed and prove exemplary.

What ultimately is motivating Lourenço? Roque believes his anti-corruption campaign has three main aims: aligning political support and subverting allies of José Eduardo dos Santos; renewing Angola’s (badly tainted) international image (among investors and the like); and recovering enough money to clear the country’s budget deficit.

These goals are arguably not that different, in broad terms, from those of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa. He and Lourenço – both leaders of former liberation movements now in government – confronted the dismal legacy of years of deep state capture by their predecessors. Both have experienced considerable difficulty and exhibited considerable caution in trying to erase those legacies.

In both countries, the essential wheels of justice have ground exceedingly slowly. Yet they are grinding still – though perhaps more surely in South Africa than in Angola.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Wikimedia Commons

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