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Fallen Angel: Isabel dos Santos sanctioned by the US

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
17 December 2021

When Isabel dos Santos attended the Global Citizens Award in New York City in September 2019, where A-listers such as John Legend, Sting and Chris Martin were in attendance, she could not have imagined how quickly her fabulous life would unravel in just one year. Dos Santos was invited to speak at the adjacent United Nations debate on Equal Rights for Women in recognition of her status as Africa’s richest woman, a title that was bestowed on her by Forbes in 2013. Three months after the glitzy event in New York, which dos Santos attended with her husband, Sindika Dokolo, the Angolan government won a court order to freeze the couple’s assets. In February 2020, Portugal followed suit as their empire was spread between the two countries. The biggest blow for the couple came in October 2020 when Dokolo tragically died in a scuba diving accident in Dubai. The latest in a long list of setbacks came last week when the United States government barred dos Santos from the land of the free and home of the brave.

Who is Isabel dos Santos?

Isabel dos Santos is the first born child of Jośe Eduardo dos Santos, who was the President of Angola from 1979 to 2017. Photo credit: Isabel dos Santos Instagram
Isabel dos Santos is the first born child of Jośe Eduardo dos Santos, who was the President of Angola from 1979 to 2017. Photo credit: Isabel dos Santos Instagram

Isabel dos Santos was born on 20 April 1973 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Her mother, Tatyana Kukanova, was the Russian first wife of Jośe Eduardo dos Santos, who went on to become the second president of Angola in 1979. Dos Santos, who proudly calls herself an engineer, studied electrical engineering at King’s College in London where she met Dokolo. Dokolo was the son of a wealthy banker from Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and his Danish wife. The couple were the African power couple and went on to have four children together (Dokolo also had a son from another relationship) after marrying in a lavish society wedding that allegedly cost £2.5m. The fairytale ended with Dokolo’s death and a visibly broken Dos Santos mustered the grace of Jacqueline Kennedy to give her beloved a dignified farewell at Westminister Abbey, in a funeral that was broadcast live in Angola and on YouTube.

The beginning of trouble

In 2013, Forbes estimated dos Santos’ fortune at $3.5 billion and crowned her Africa’s richest woman. Her fortune came from stakes in Unitel (Angola’s leading mobile phone operator), Banco de Fomento Angola (Angolan bank), Zap (Angolan TV), SODIBA (Angolan brewery), Candando (Angolan supermarket chain), Nova Cimangola (Angolan cement company), NOS (Portuguese telecoms and media), EuroBic (Portuguese bank), Galp (Portuguese energy company), and Swiss jewellery maker, de Grisogono.

Her father appointed her the Chair of Sonangol, the state-owned oil company from 2016-17. When João Lourenço was elected the third President of Angola in September 2017, he fired dos Santos from Sonangol and arrested her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, who headed up Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. Dos Santos dismissed the two year investigation and subsequent seizure of her assets as a political vendetta by the new government and vehemently denied that she was corrupt.

"[My fortune] was built on my character, my intelligence, education, capacity for work, perseverance"

Isabel dos Santos. January 2020

Luanda Leaks

The stunning view of the Luanda Bay area, in the heart of Angola's capital city.
The stunning view of the Luanda Bay area, in the heart of Angola's capital city.

In January 2020, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published over 715,000 documents that were shared by the anti-corruption charity, Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF). The documents added credibility to the Angolan government’s accusations by detailing exactly how dos Santos had amassed her fortune through 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries which ‘won’ contracts from Angolan companies such as Sonangol.

The investigation destroyed the reputation that dos Santos had built as a self-made billionaire. Forbes, who had effectively legitimized dos Santos’ wealth in the first place by not conducting thorough research of her Source of Wealth, was quick to drop her from their billionaire’s list with an article entitled How Isabel Dos Santos, Once Africa’s Richest Woman, Went Broke.

US sanctions

It took the US State Department nearly two years to act on Luanda Leaks. The US State Department marked International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December 2021 by barring dos Santos and her immediate family from entering the United States “for her involvement in significant corruption by misappropriating public funds for her personal benefit." The visa ban was part of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that allows the United States to deny foreign individuals associated with corruption or human rights violations entry into the country. The question is why now? Perhaps, the news that Dos Santos is also a Russian citizen prompted them to act? Or was the delay due to the presence of leading US oil giants operating in Angola? Whatever the case, we are waiting for dos Santos to respond and (hopefully) spill the beans. If there is anyone who has shown that she will not go down without a good fight, it is Isabel dos Santos



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