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Angola: Isabel dos Santos mobilises her last line of loyal supporters

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Wednesday, 3 June 2020 17:32

Portugal Angola
Isabel dos Santos looks at her husband and art collector Sindika Dokolo during the opening of an art exhibition featuring works from his collection in Porto, Portugal on March 5, 2015 (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

Targeted by investigations into embezzlement of public funds in Angola and Portugal, the eldest daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos is organising her response from London and Paris.

Despite rumours pinpointing her whereabouts in Moscow and her recent trips to Lisbon, Isabel dos Santos seems to have chosen London, where she has been based since leaving Luanda in the summer of 2018, as her headquarters. Her father, on the other hand, has been living in Barcelona since April 2018, where he observes the strictest silence while remaining unwavering in his support of his eldest daughter.

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

The businesswoman, who celebrated her 47th birthday in April, is also backed by her husband, the Congolese art collector Sindika Dokolo, who took up her cause at the beginning of the year to counter the revelations made public by the Luanda Leaks investigation spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Defence on social networks

Since João Lourenço came to power in September 2017, succeeding Dos Santos’s father as president of Angola, and the beginning of her legal troubles, Dos Santos has used social media as her first line of defence. She works to boost her image by frequently posting messages highlighting her successful businesses, her reading of the economic situation in Angola and her thoughts on the post-coronavirus world, while making use of counterattacks in response to accusations on Twitter and family photos on Instagram to a lesser degree.

Other communications have been handled for several years now by the Portuguese public relations agency LPM Comunicação, and more specifically by its managing director, Catarina Vasconcelos, a communications professional with over 20 years of experience in the business.

READ MORE Isabel dos Santos hits back with new accusations against Angola

However, Dos Santos enlisted a new player, the British public relations agency Powerscourt, specialising in crisis and reputation management, to send two statements on 12 and 26 May alleging that the Angolan courts froze her assets based on false documents.

Powerscourt oversaw the campaign. The firm was founded in 2004 by former business journalist of the Sunday Times, Rory Godson, and Victoria Palmer-Moore, Managing Director, whose previous professional experience includes stints at UBS, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Godson also happens to be one of the main communications advisers of the French-Ivorian banker Tidjane Thiam.

READ MORE Credit Suisse: The “irrational story” that sunk Tidjane Thiam

On the communications and legal sides, Dos Santos, known as “the princess” in Angola, is used to being surrounded by the best in the business, and this is especially true during this difficult time. An army of big-name legal talent is mobilised to defend her.

READ MORE Angola exposé: The money chase

In the most high-profile case – Luanda Leaks – Dos Santos tasked the prestigious UK firm Schillings, reputed for its expertise in crisis management (cyber-attacks, kidnap for ransom, asset seizure, smear campaigns, etc.) and VIP clients such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the royal couple Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series).

A victory in the Oi case

According to our sources, at the end of February, i.e., one month after the Luanda Leaks were published, Gillian Duffy, a partner at Schillings specialising in offshore commercial litigation and privacy, and Simon Brown, an associate and reputation management expert, launched a counterattack.

READ MORE Isabel dos Santos hits back with new accusations against Angola

The firm sent a letter to the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), an organisation chaired by the French lawyer William Bourdon and which helped release the Luanda Leaks, to request permission to access the documents in their entirety, invoking Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) concerning right of access by the data subject. However, a month later, the firm received an unfavourable response from the PPLAAF, which justified its decision on the grounds that the article invoked is not applicable to journalistic work and related activities.

While awaiting future developments in the case, Dos Santos recently scored a victory in another case, the one pitting her against the Brazilian group Oi, a former shareholder alongside Dos Santos in the Angolan mobile phone operator Unitel. Both parties, locked in a dispute for several years over dividend payments, saw their conflict settled in 2019 when an arbitration court ruled in favour of Oi.

However, Dos Santo challenged the ruling, opposing its enforcement (an arbitration award worth several hundreds of millions of dollars), and lodged an appeal. Following her appeal, the British Virgin Islands Commercial Court, where the ruling could be enforced, declared a portion of her arguments admissible at the end of March. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a court of the same jurisdiction was scheduled to hand down a decision in July and the arbitration review hearing, to be conducted in Paris, was set to take place in December.

Dos Santos maintains her telecommunications clout

Although lawyers in the British Virgin Islands (Tamara Cameron and Yegâne Güley, with Walkers) and in London (Jonathan Adkin, with Serle Court, and Michelle Duncan, with Joseph Hage Aaronson) are hard at work on this case, the Paris office of the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan is on the frontlines, prepping for the judicial review.

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

Enlisted at the outset of the dispute, Dos Santos sacked the firm in 2015, opting instead for the services of two Iberian firms (Portugal’s PLMJ and Spain’s Uría Menéndez), before ultimately rehiring the firm after the unfavourable outcome of the arbitration challenging the ruling. Given its significance, the case is led by two seasoned partners, Philippe Pinsolle in Geneva and Isabelle Michou in Paris, with the assistance of three other members from the firm’s Paris office.

The refocusing of her legal defence team in London and Paris illustrates the difficulty Dos Santos is experiencing in finding Portuguese-speaking people willing to openly support her. This loss of influence is coupled with the decline of her fortune, with Forbes estimating her net worth at $1.5bn in April, below what it was in 2013 ($2bn) – which led the magazine to dub her as Africa’s first woman billionaire – and its peak, in 2014 ($3.7bn).

In Portugal, Dos Santos appears to continue to have clout in the telecommunications sector. A shareholder of the leading group NOS, in early April she received the backing of her co-shareholder, the company Sonaecom, which announced it would contest the decision to seize her shares on the grounds that it also punishes the company unjustly.

In addition, although three members with close ties to Dos Santos serving on the board of directors of NOS resigned from their positions, the three new arrivals – José Carvalho de Freitas, Ana Rita Cernadas and Cristina Maria de Jesus Marques – are no strangers to her and the latter two have presided over companies falling in her orbit (Santoro Finance and Fidequity).

Status as virtual adversaries

In Lisbon, the businesswoman has been able to count on a number of loyal supporters for some years now, including the legal adviser José Miguel Júdice, who founded the firm PLMJ but left at the end of 2019 to devote himself to international arbitration, and certain allies, particularly the lawyer Daniel Proença de Carvalho, former chairman of the firm Uría Menéndez-Proença de Carvalho.

The Dos Santos family has enjoyed the longstanding support of many political figures, such as the former president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, who currently serves as non-executive chairman of the board of directors of Goldman Sachs.

READ MORE Angola exposé: President João Lourenço breaks the mould 

In Angola, the situation is less clear. In response to pressure from authorities, the communications firm LPM Comunicação, which has contacts in Luanda, and, according to information reported by the local press, the lawyer Sérgio Raimundo, who represents a number of public figures implicated in anti-corruption cases, have been discreetly making moves on behalf of Dos Santos. In the political arena, few people formally support former president José Eduardo dos Santos (and, by extension, “the princess”).

READ MORE Angola: Where did all the money go? Part 5, the fight back

General Dino (Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento), who is very close to the former president, no longer seems to visit him in Barcelona. Within the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), although there are a number of people displeased with President Lourenço, none of them have yet to break ranks by openly supporting the Dos Santos family, who have virtually become adversaries in the eyes of the executive branch.

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