I guess like me the name Isabel dos Santos was never one at the top of people’s minds, although she is the richest woman in Africa, with an estimated net worth of at least $2 billion and holdings in telecom, banks and a range of other industries.
She was born in Azerbaijan in 1973, the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos who served as President of Angola from 1979 to 2017, the second longest serving African president surpassed only by the president of Equatorial Guinea. Her father met her mother Tatiana Kukanova, a Russian, while he was studying for a degree in petroleum engineering in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Isabel graduated from King’s College London in the 1990s with a degree in electrical engineering and business management, after which she worked for Coopers & Lybrand, an accounting firm that later became part of PwC, and as a project manager on a sanitation project in Luanda.
The Angolan government has, since 2018, been trying to prosecute Isabel dos Santos for past corruption crimes that may have contributed to Angola’s ongoing recession crisis. She has until recently been living in exile in Portugal but when the Portuguese authorities started to investigate her finances she has since assumed the UAE as her official country of residence.
Early in 2020 the Angolan government announced it is preparing the legal battle for confiscation of her assets in Portugal, a process that is already in operation in the form of letters rogatory sent to Portugal to stop the transfer of funds from Portuguese Commercial Bank to a Russian bank.
Angola’s exclusive distributor of the Angolan diamond mining output Sodiam, and Sindika Dokolo, the Congolese businessman married to Isabel, acquired in 2012 a controlling stake in De Grisogono, a struggling jeweller founded by Fawaz Gruosi, a Lebanese-born businessman. The new management team included former employees of the management consulting giant Boston Consulting Group.
The business plan for the newly-acquired jeweller didn’t work. De Grisogono sold just $5.6 million of its wares through private sales in 2013, far short of its $33m target, and took on more and more debt. Angola’s state diamond company Sodiam now fears its investment of more than $120m is gone for good.
This story of how Angolan public money came to be used to target the super-rich on the French Riviera goes beyond that of a dubious business strategy gone wrong. The present Angolan government alleges that the couple were able to buy diamonds from the state at below market value, through several companies that were given the status of “preferential buyer” with Sodiam.
All of this opens a window into the lightly regulated professional services sector, which over the years has become a cornerstone of a thriving offshore industry that drives money laundering, tax avoidance and public corruption around the globe.
More than 700,000 leaked documents about the billionaire’s business empire has been obtained by BBC Panorama showing how she and her husband could buy valuable state assets in a series of deals. A court in Angola has been told the couple and a business associate were responsible for state losses of $1.1bn.
Jaime Esteves, the head of tax at PwC in charge of Portugal, Angola and Cape Verde, has left the firm after revelations of PwC links with Isabel Dos Santos. Once again it seems that western consultants, accountants and lawyers provided vital support assisting corruption and fraud in Africa.