Eight years ago, Forbes declared Isabel dos Santos the richest woman in Africa, worth an estimated $3.5 billion. The daughter of Angola’s longtime former president grew immensely wealthy in a textbook case of how to loot a country.
Now, with her father out of office, her empire is a shadow of what it once was, with corruption charges levied against her by her country, assets frozen by courts in three different nations and a lawsuit claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid debt in a fourth country. Forbes assumes she has no access and likely no chance to gain back control of the frozen assets—together worth about $1.6 billion if not frozen—, so we give her no value for them and by our calculations she is no longer a billionaire. As a result, Forbes has dropped Dos Santos, who was worth an estimated $2.2 billion in January 2020, from our newly released 2021 list of Africa’s richest people.
The onetime African ‘princess’ is by no means a pauper. She’s reported to have a home on a private island in Dubai, another residence in London and a $35 million yacht. She likely has bank accounts and assets that Forbes and legal authorities have yet to track. She is said to be splitting her time between Dubai—where her husband Sindika Dokolo died in a diving accident in October—and London, where Dokolo’s funeral was held in November at Westminster Cathedral. Through a spokesperson Dos Santos declined to comment.
As Forbes spelled out in an August 2013 article (cowritten and reported by Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais), Isabel dos Santos is the eldest daughter of former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country from 1979 to 2017. While he ran the poverty-stricken but oil-rich country, she garnered significant stakes in Angola’s strategic industries—banking, cement, diamonds and telecom—making her the most influential business person in her homeland. More than half of her assets were stakes in Portuguese companies, adding international credibility. (Angola, a former Portuguese colony, achieved independence in 1975.) When Forbes outed her as a billionaire in January 2013, the government disseminated the news as a matter of national pride, living proof that the country had arrived.
As best we could trace, every major Angolan investment held by Dos Santos stemmed either from taking a chunk of a company that wanted to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action. Her story was a rare window into the tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world.
In Portugal, the companies Dos Santos invested in — several banks, a cable TV company and an engineering firm — turned a blind eye to the questionable source of her investment funds, says Ana Gomes, a former member of the European Parliament and a member of Portugal’s Socialist Party (and currently a candidate for president in Portugal). “When she bought stakes in banks in Portugal… I kept saying, ‘What is the origin of the money? Why are you allowing her to launder money through our system?’” laments Gomes, who filed details of the alleged money laundering with Portuguese judicial authorities starting in 2016. No action was taken in response.
In early 2020 Dos Santos sued Gomes for defamation in a Portuguese court. She took issue with Gomes tweeting and going on TV saying that Dos Santos’ bank was a money-laundering machine for her. Dos Santos lost the case, but her lawyers have appealed the ruling.
Dos Santos’ empire began to unravel under the leadership of Angola’s new president João Lourenço, who took office in September 2017 after Dos Santos’ father retired. Lourenço vowed to attack the corruption that Angola had become well known for (Transparency International ranked the country as one of the most corrupt in the world.) Two months into his tenure he dismissed Dos Santos as the head of state oil firm Sonangol, a position to which her father’s government had named her in June 2016.
But the bigger move came in December 2019. As part of a corruption investigation, an Angolan court froze assets in the country that belonged to Dos Santos and her husband — including a stake in mobile telecom firm Unitel and in several banks. The court order stated that Exem Energy BV, an entity owned by Dos Santos and Dokolo, had promised to repay at least $75 million it owes to Sonangol, but had failed to do so. The court also claimed that the couple and one of their business associates had caused the Angolan government to lose at least $1.1 billion. In January 2020 Angola’s attorney general charged Dos Santos and Dokolo with embezzlement and money laundering.
At the time, Dos Santos issued a statement saying that the allegations against her were “extremely misleading and untrue” and that she had been a “private businesswoman” who had “always operated within the law.”
That same month, a flood of details about Dos Santos and her assets became public through the Luanda Leaks, a collection of more than 700,000 documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It confirmed the reporting Forbes did in 2013 about Dos Santos corruptly obtaining stakes in Angolan companies.
Luanda Leaks also shined a light on her enablers: consulting and accounting firms like McKinsey and PwC, as well as a coterie of bankers and lawyers who helped Dos Santos obtain her fortune and move it offshore. In a December 2020 statement, PwC said that when the allegations came to light it “took immediate steps to end our relationship with companies involved” and that some senior employees left the firm or were subject to “other remedial measures.”
A spokesman for McKinsey says the firm no longer counts Dos Santos or her companies as clients. So far, none of the professional service firms have been charged with any wrongdoing, though last year a Portuguese regulator did investigate auditing firms that worked with Dos Santos and reportedly found that some had not taken steps to stop possible money laundering.
Dos Santos has also done business with Forbes Media, owner of Forbes magazine and Forbes.com. Her Angola-based company Zap Midia is the licensee holder for Forbes Angola and Forbes Portugal magazines. Zap Midia is listed in the Angolan court filing as one of the companies whose assets were to be frozen.
One particularly galling revelation in Luanda Leaks: Documents from 2006 that showed Dos Santos’ husband paid Sonangol just $15 million (€11 million) for a stake in Portuguese oil firm Galp that was worth $99 million (€75 million). The balance of the purchase was essentially an interest-free loan from the Angolan government. That stake in Galp, held through Netherlands-registered entity Exem Energy BV, is currently worth about $550 million. But those shares have been frozen by a court in the Netherlands, according to ICIJ.
Dos Santos is far from the only person in her circle who got rich off the state. Corruption runs deep in the Angolan political elite. “Some of the biggest crooks seem to have made a gentleman’s agreement with [Angolan President] Lourenço and are being let off the hook,” says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a professor of African politics at the University of Oxford. He notes that in the past six months, Lourenço has expanded the anti-corruption fight to include more figures than just the Dos Santos family.
Kerry A. Dolan Forbes Staff