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Angola exposé: The money chase

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Angola: on the trail of stolen billions

By Patrick Smith, Zoe Eisenstein
Posted on Thursday, 14 May 2020 16:17

isabel dos santos

In the second of a five-part series on Angola's campaign to find its stolen funds, we explore one of the leading characters of this story: Isabel dos Santos.

Angolan Twitter went wild – mostly cheering – when the Lourenço government froze the assets and accounts of Isabel Dos Santos in the country last December.

READ MORE: Angola: Isabel dos Santos indicted for embezzlement and more

The courts claimed she and her art dealer husband Sindika Dokolo had caused over a billion dollars of losses to the Angolan state.

“The Princess”

Despite a fortune reckoned at around $2.2bn – many say a gross underestimate – she cultivates a homespun image.

An associate recalls their first meeting when Isabel was sitting by a swimming pool in flip flops and a bathing suit. Yet “the Princess” symbolises the failures of her father’s four-decade rule.

Isabel dos Santos, left, with Fernando Teles, former CEO of Angolan bank BIC, Americo Amorim, and former CEO of Corticeira Amorim, during the opening of an art exhibition featuring works from the collection of her husband and art collector Sindika Dokolo in Porto, Portugal on March 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

Her constant social media posts, taking on Lourenço, senior Angolans and Portuguese anger many. She dismissed advice from public relations advisors, friends and even her husband to rein it in.

“She’s at the top of the pyramid of what was happening in this place. She’s the highest exponent, she’s as good as it got,” said a top official in Luanda.

“And she was visible and extravagant – they got reckless towards the end. So it’s only normal that people want to see her blood.”

Angola versus Dos Santos

Angolan officials are doing battle with Dos Santos across the world. They want the United States to impose sanctions on Isabel to bar her from visiting the US and her companies from using US dollars.

The charges on the warrant would include: money-laundering, influence-peddling, harmful management … forgery of documents … and other economic crimes.

Last June, Angola signed a $4.1m contract with Washington DC lobbyist Squire Patton Boggs to push its case against the Dos Santos clan.

Isabel’s business empire spans several continents but her banking options have shrunk over the last decade. Banks, such as Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and Santander will not work with her.

Uria Menéndez, the Spanish law firm she retained in Portugal has dropped her. “She’s asked everyone here if they will work for her,” a legal source in Lisbon said. “She thought she was above the law and untouchable but she’s now become literally untouchable – none of the serious firms will go anywhere near her.”

Assets frozen

In February her Portuguese bank accounts were frozen. Angola’s attorney general has said he will issue an international warrant against Dos Santos if she fails to cooperate with investigations. The charges on the warrant would include: ‘money-laundering, influence-peddling, harmful management … forgery of documents … and other economic crimes,’ he said.

At the centre of the charges against Dos Santos are claims that she used her position as chairwoman of Sonangol, Angola’s state oil conglomerate, to make illicit payments via Eurobic bank in Portugal, in which she was the main shareholder, to companies in Dubai controlled by her friends.

Luanda Leaks

Journalists who have seen a closely-guarded cache of 750,000 hacked documents say that she and her associates had ordered millions of dollars of payments to be made after the Lourenço government had sacked her from Sonangol on 15 November 2017.

Angola’s state oil company Sonangol in Luanda, Angola August 26, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Nuhna Ribeiro da Cuhna, who managed Sonagol’s account at Eurobic, was found dead in his garage in Lisbon after local media linked him to Dos Santos’s business operations.

READ MORE Angola: Where did all the money go? Part 1, a family feast

Business sources close to Eurobic in Lisbon told us that the dates and timings of the documents seen by the journalists were forged. That could become the subject of a drawn-out legal fight. But it doesn’t settle the conflict of interest raised by Dos Santos’s controlling stake in Eurobic.

Insisting on her innocence, Isabel promises to fight through the courts. She had hired Schillings, London-based lawyers and reputation managers who acted for the Gupta family at the heart of South Africa’s state capture scandal, and is threatening to sue journalists behind the Luanda Leaks reports for defamation.

The government is guilty of a “concentrated and well-coordinated attack ahead of elections,” said Isabel. “Stolen documents have been leaked selectively to give a false impression of my business activities … all my commercial transactions have been approved by lawyers, banks, auditors and regulators”.

READ MORE Isabel dos Santos accuses Angola of fake documents to freeze her assets

Yet those auditing firms have launched their own probes. A top executive resigned from PwC over the affair. Spanish bank Abanca has bought 95% of Eurobic, including Isabel’s share. Over a dozen senior officials working for her companies have quit.

And in early April, a Lisbon court ordered the “preventive seizure” of Dos Santos’s 26% stake in Portuguese telecoms company NOS, reported Bloomberg News on 4 April. This followed a generalised freeze in February of all the bank accounts held by Isabel in Portugal; that was in response to a request from the Angolan authorities for judicial cooperation.

“Sliver of a chance”

Legal experts in Luanda and Lisbon say there is a sliver of a chance that Isabel’s representatives might offer to return some funds to Angola. But her closest associates insist she would never return to Luanda to negotiate.

Tracking the Dos Santos assets would be an enormous task and investment in time and labour.

A settlement between both parties might be possible, said a consultant with knowledge of the transactions. “You would need the host country to be pulling their finger out to prove that funds that are abroad belong to them rather than to the target and that’s a much harder task.”

“Often countries have never faced this situation before, certainly where there are political families involved it’s usually a first,” says Kamal Shah, a UK-based lawyer who has taken on several politically-charged asset tracing cases in recent years. “Generally the targets are a couple of steps ahead of those that are chasing them because they tend to have the best professional advisors”.

One of Isabel’s biggest vulnerabilities, according to an expert on Angola’s finances, is her companies using state backing in Luanda to get loans in Portugal to buy large stakes in companies there.

“There are difficulties with that in legal terms,” he adds. “Likewise, there are problems with a loan that Dos Santos took in US dollars from Sonangol but tried to repay in Angolan kwanza.”

“A purely legal route in getting back the assets”?

However, he raises doubts about the viability of a purely legal route in getting back the assets.  “Asset tracing is a huge job. Knowing where this stuff is is a big form of pressure. But if she says I’m never moving back to Angola, she could hold out for a hell of a long time. That’s her option. There’s a real issue there.”

Jonathan Benton, a former head of the UK government’s international Corruption Unit who now runs a asset-tracing company called Intelligent Sanctuary, agrees that tracking the Dos Santos assets would be an enormous task and investment in time and labour.

“A case like this is not that simple (for the UK) … it may require a team of twelve working full-time to try and gather the necessary evidence. Valuable resources I don’t believe they have at present.”

That leaves the ball very much in Angola’s court – to invest in a professional forensic investigation and apply as much diplomatic pressure as possible. All that has been made much harder by the global public  health crisis this year.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series.

For the complete series, click here.

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