In Depth

Why everyone’s talking about Isabel dos Santos

‘Luanda Leaks’ suggest corruption and nepotism at heart of Angolan establishment

Africa’s richest woman amassed a $2.2bn (£1.7bn) fortune through corruption and exploitation of her home country of Angola, newly leaked documents suggest.

More than 700,000 files from the business empire of Isabel dos Santos have been obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistle-blowers in Africa (PPLAAF) anti-corruption charity and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The so-called “Luanda Leaks” reportedly show how decades of improper deals made dos Santos rich - and left the Southern African nation poor.

Who is Isabel dos Santos?

Known as “the princess” in her home country, the businesswoman is the eldest child of Angola’s former president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country from 1979 to 2017.

Africa’s first female billionaire, dos Santos now spends much of her time in London, from where she controls a portfolio of interests across Africa and Europe that include banking, telecoms, TV, cement, diamonds, alcohol, supermarkets and real estate, reports The Guardian - one of 37 media organisations that have analysed the leaked documents.

It has been more than a year since dos Santos visited Angola, where she was already under investigation by the government for alleged corruption before the files were published.

At the beginning of January, Angola’s attorney general announced a freeze on the assets of dos Santos, her husband Sindika Dokolo, and their chief adviser, as Bloomberg reported at the time. The authorities claimed that the couple’s dealings had “harmed” and cost the state more than $1bn (£770m) in losses.

What are the latest allegations?

The Luanda Leaks - a cache of 715,000 emails, charts, contracts, audits and accounts - contains evidence that suggests Dos Santos and husband Dokolo, a businessman and art collector, benefitted from preferential deals and lucrative transactions with the Angolan state that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Among the allegations are that state oil company Sonangol sold the couple a stake in Portuguese oil corporation Galp that is now worth €750m (£640m), but that their company “only had to pay 15% of the price upfront”, with the remaining €63m (£54m) “turned into a low-interest loan from Sonangol”, the BBC reports.

Dos Santos also served as chair of Sonangol, during which time $115m (£89m) of payments to consultancy firms appeared to have been “routed through a Dubai company controlled by her associates”, says The Guardian.

Angolan prosecutors launched a criminal investigation in September into her actions while helming the oil firm. 

The leaked documents also suggest that a “business venture with the state diamond company allegedly resulted in $200m (£154m) of public debt propping up an ailing Swiss jewellery brand partly owned by Dokolo”, the newspaper reports.

In addition, President dos Santos is said to have given Dokolo the right to buy some of Angola’s raw diamonds at a drastically reduced price. Sources told BBC Panorama that the state may have suffered losses of almost $1bn as a result of the deals. 

Another claim resulting from the leak is that two dos Santos companies and their subcontractors were planning to collect up to $500m (£385m) in fees from a real estate development in the Angolan capital, Luanda. However, the payment was later cancelled by the new president, because of “over-invoicing” and “disproportionate compensation”.

In total, the leaks have highlighted about 400 companies, many offshore, that appear to be connected to dos Santos and Dokolo.

And the reaction?

Dos Santos and her husband have denied the allegations against them and claim the leaks are tied to a politically motivated witch-hunt by the Angolan authorities.

The businesswoman told the BBC that computers belonging to her employees and legal advisers had been hacked, adding:  “There is an orchestrated attack by the current government that is completely politically motivated, it’s completely unfounded.

“I can say my holdings are commercial, there are no proceeds from contracts or public contracts or money that has been deviated from other funds.”

Dokolo said that the government’s claims amounted to “armageddon” and risked damaging the Angolan economy, which he claimed had benefitted from the business deals of him and his wife. “We have worked and invested in this country, more than many others,” he said.

Former president dos Santos has also denied allegations of wrongdoing. In an open letter, the ex-leader said he had “not transferred to himself, or to any other entity, money from the state”.

But not everyone is convinced. “These are the classic symptoms of a captured state,” said Steve Goodrich, a senior research manager at charity Transparency International UK. “Here we have industry and politics all in one family, with no apparent separation of powers.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which handled auditing and accounts for Dokolo companies in Malta, Switzerland and the Netherlands, has said that it is conducting an internal investigation “in response to the very serious and concerning allegations” and had “taken action to terminate any ongoing work for entities controlled by members of the dos Santos family”, The Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, dos Santos’s name has been removed from a list of participants due to meet in the Swiss resort of Davos this week for the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of business and political leaders.

The organisers said they were “re-evaluating” her sponsorship of the event through her company Unitel, the biggest mobile phone provider in Angola.


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