Perhaps the Luanda Leaks aren’t so much an indictment of Isabel dos Santos but rather the weakness of the Angolan state. Beholden to the country’s kleptocratic regime, state-owned companies willingly transferred assets to dozens of family members, politicians and generals. Isabel’s father, the former president José Eduardo dos Santos, ruled Angola for 38 years and perfected a patronage network that divested both party and state institutions of any real power. Today we’re seeing how thorough his dominance was.
To Angolans, Isabel’s exploits aren’t really news any more. They’re not even news in Portugal, Angola’s former colonial master. In 2008, the Angolan journalist Rafael Marques founded the anti-corruption website Maka Angola dedicated to exposing the rot. One of his first articles about Isabel dos Santos dates from 2012, when he questioned how she had been elected to the board of directors of Angola’s largest mobile phone operator. By then we were already questioning where her money came from. But who’s going to listen to an African journalist?
“Only when European and American journalists took up the subject did the issue become serious enough that certain governments and society in many countries began to pay attention,” Marques said in a recent interview with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “Once again, we Angolans, and Africans in general, continue to have this chronic inability to react to the critical sense of our own fellow citizens, so that we can look at our societies and work in solidarity for the common good.”
What was once discussed in hushed tones around Angolan dinner tables has now been splashed across the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The Luanda Leaks made it impossible to pretend that Isabel dos Santos became Africa’s richest woman by dint of her merit or business acumen. What has Angolans talking is the depth and audacity of her evasion: 715,000 documents, 400 companies owned around the world, a labyrinth of tax havens and shell companies.
For years, Dos Santos seemed untouchable. As the South African university lecturer Claudia Gastrow wrote in a recent article, a network of lawyers, management consultants and accountants “laundered” her reputation. She posed for Instagram photos with Nicki Minaj and threw lavish parties. Universities were involved too: she was invited to speak at Yale, the University of Warwick and the London School of Economics. “They valued Dos Santos’s glamour over the rights of millions of Angolans,” Gastrow observes.
Even today, many Angolans still insist that Dos Santos created jobs. Such is our desperation for the shreds of a comfortable existence that we’ve developed a shared Stockholm syndrome. We were happy with billionaires, it seemed – so long as we could put food and water on the table. But as one Angolan Twitter user put it: “I steal your money, then build a canteen with it and offer you a job. Am I helping you??”
After the civil war ended in 2002, high oil prices brought on an economic boom. Rather than using this newfound wealth to invest in much-needed healthcare, education and social services, Angola’s money disappeared into Malta and Mauritius. When oil prices plummeted towards the end of the last decade, so too did Angola’s economy. Though Dos Santos borrowed from banks in which she was the majority shareholder, many small business owners and average Angolans are now unable to take out loans. Foreign currency is scarce, foreign investment is virtually nonexistent, prices have soared, spending power has dropped and people are once again questioning where the money went.
Many of the culprits are corporations. Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company that was responsible for more than 90% of Angolan exports, partnered Dos Santos in various joint enterprises, both at home and abroad. Sodiam, Angola’s national diamond company, stumped up the capital for a joint venture with Sindika Dokolo, Dos Santos’s husband. Meanwhile, Angola’s Banco Nacional allowed holders of public office to transfer huge chunks of money to offshore accounts around the world.
Ultimately, though, this was a failure of the state – unable to stand up not just to Isabel dos Santos, but to her brother, Zenu dos Santos, and several other billionaires who used Angola as a playground for self-enrichment. That they were aided by willing partners such as the Boston Consulting Group, KPMG and PwC, is hardly surprising – we’ve endured the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and Gupta scandal in South Africa, all involving western firms. Yet their lack of oversight – not one flagged Isabel dos Santos as a potential money-laundering risk – is still remarkable.
What Isabel doesn’t understand, and probably never will, is that opportunities bestowed upon her were made available because of who her father is. In the last years of his presidency, José Eduardo dos Santos worried about his legacy. In an interview with Portugal’s broadcaster SIC (he rarely gave interviews to the Angolan media), the former president said he wished to be remembered as a patriot. The Dos Santos legacy will be the offshore bank accounts situated in countries that many Angolans will never visit, where their wealth has been siphoned away.