Angola: Where did all the money go? Part 4, the golden age

By Zoé Eisenstein and Patrick Smith
Posted on Thursday, 24 October 2019 10:42, updated on Friday, 25 October 2019 21:16

Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and head of state energy giant Sonangol, speaks during an interview in Luanda, Angola June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ed Cropley

Portugal was the locus of much of the capital flight that happened in the post civil war years.

[In our fourth instalment of our series on Angola’s missing billions, we look to Angolan money in Portugal. For part 1 click here, for part 2 click here, for part 3 click here for part 5 click here.]

Predators in the Golden Age

Ruthless Vladimiro Caposso rose up the ranks of the ruling party, making friends and influencing people.

When the country dropped communism for crony capitalism, he built up his fortune to join the nouveau riche in a country with constant power cuts and tap water that comes out in a muddy and rusty trickle, if at all.

In fact, Vladimiro is the protagonist of Predadores (Predators), the 2005 novel by celebrated writer, Pepetela. It depicts an Angola hauntingly close to reality.

It was the era of what Luanda-based economist Da Rocha calls the mini-Golden Age. State revenue boomed after the war ended in 2002, as did capital flight.

It was also the time when Angola turned the tables on its former coloniser, Portugal. Cash-strapped Portuguese businesses welcomed Angolan investors in banks, telecoms, media and energy.

By 2013, Angolan investors were reckoned to own at least 7% of the shares on the Lisbon stock exchange.

Two decades earlier, Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s daughter, had returned to Luanda to launch her business career. She has become the public face of Angolan money buying up Portugal.

Isabel made her first million aged just 18, according to one of her friends in Lisbon. Lev Leviev, a colourful diamond tycoon from Israel, “gave her” his licence to sell Angolan diamonds “because he didn’t want it”.

After private school and a degree from King’s College, London, Dos Santos’s first retail venture was opening the Miami Beach restaurant on Ilha do Cabo while she worked for a much-criticised rubbish-­collection company.

“She reminds me of Tony Soprano,” says a regular visitor to Luanda, referring to the TV series in which the Italian-American mobster is also involved in an unpopular waste-­management business.

Unlike Soprano, Isabel seems to have a blissful family life, married to Danish-Congolese art collector Sindika Dokolo, with whom she has four children. Her Instagram feed shows her jetting across the world from corporate boardrooms to charity balls.

Also unlike Soprano, Isabel insists she is a self-made business leader who has not benefited from her family’s position.

Some of the hostility that the family now faces comes down to overreach.

In June 2016, President Dos Santos appointed Isabel to take over Sonangol, battered by falling prices and production. “It was a ­poisoned pill. It was going to damage her forever. Why do it?” asked a Luanda businessman.

The new President sacked her two months after he took over and her stewardship of Sonangol is under detailed scrutiny.

Yet she’s fighting back with investigations of her rivals in the nomenklatura.

On 21 October she spoke out against the probe into the transfer of millions of dollars out of Sonangol, calling it ‘political vengeance’.

Lisbon links

Some Portuguese officials like José Manuel Barroso, a former prime minister, cultivated close ties with Luanda and opposed investigations into money laundering in Portugal.

Barroso is now a non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, which worked closely with Dos Santos’ government.

In 2015, the Paris-based OECD condemned Lisbon’s failures to investigate corruption and financial crime.

Agreeing with the OECD, Ana Gomes, a socialist representing Portugal in the European Parliament said: “There are too many Portuguese willing to put themselves at the service of the kleptocrats; there are also many willing to put themselves at the service of the Chinese.”

It is a symbiotic relationship for Portuguese business, she added: “The Chinese built bad-quality roads […]; that means the Portuguese can come and service them.”

Lisbon’s tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, with luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, became a promenade for Luanda’s monied clique.

But they kept a low profile at home.

A businessman, splitting his time between London, Lisbon and Luanda, explained the thinking: “They weren’t bling-bling like in Russia and Nigeria.

The code was: ‘Do everything you want outside, but be careful in Luanda. Let’s make money here and have fun elsewhere.’”

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