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Angola: Isabel dos Santos forced to pay $600m in damages by Paris court

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Wednesday, 27 January 2021 09:56

Isabel dos Santos in Portugal, May 5, 2018 © MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

After losing control of her stake in Unitel, Angola’s main mobile operator, Isabel dos Santos is now suffering a setback in the courts. On 26 January, the French courts ruled against the Angolan businesswoman, who is the eldest daughter of the former president, José Eduardo dos Santos.

The Paris Court of Appeal rejected her request for the annulment of an arbitration award that will require her and her co-shareholders to pay more than $600m in damages to Portugal’s PT Ventures, a former shareholder.

€300,000 in compensation

This failure, which is the culmination of a long judicial procedure that began in 2015, comes after dos Santos’ resignation from Unitel’s board of directors in August 2020. It also comes at a time when dos Santos’ successor, João Lourenço, wants to regain control of the company.

READ MORE Isabel dos Santos loses to Angola in an $850 million dispute

This is a new blow for dos Santos, who is currently facing accusations of corruption in Angola and Portugal. She has also been suffering from a personal tragedy as her husband, Sindika Dokolo, died in a diving accident in Dubai at the end of October.

The French courts have delivered their final verdict on the Unitel case, which was examined at a hearing in Paris on 9 December. In a 24-page ruling, which we have seen, the court rejected all of Vidatel’s claims – the company through which dos Santos owned 25% of Unitel – and ordered it to pay €300,000 in compensation (including costs related to the proceedings) to PT Ventures.

Arguments rejected

While dos Santos, represented by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, sought to have the award rendered by an arbitral tribunal in 2019 overturned, the Paris Court of Appeal upheld it in favour of PT Ventures, who were represented by White & Case.

Neither the arguments regarding the tribunal’s composition, nor those on the lack of impartiality of two of the arbitrators were accepted. As such, the court emphasised the importance of complying with the shareholders’ agreement and the rules of arbitration under the aegis of Paris’ International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment regarding a possible challenge of the court’s decision. White & Case also did not wish to comment.

Sonangol now a majority shareholder in Unitel

This judicial setback confirms dos Santos’ loss of influence within Unitel, once her stronghold. It comes on top of two other recent difficulties.

The first concerns Unitel’s shareholding structure, previously held in equal shares of 25% each by four players – Vidatel, PT Ventures, the Angolan general close to dos Santos’ father Leopoldino do Nascimento “Dino” (via his company Geni) and the oil company Sonangol (via Mercury). Unitel is now, since the beginning of 2020, 50% controlled by Sonangol, which has taken over PT Ventures’ stake.

READ MORE Angola: Isabel dos Santos’s husband, Sindika Dokolo, dies in accident

The second difficulty emerged in December 2020. According to the Portuguese press, PT Ventures was granted permission from a court in the British Virgin Islands (where Vidatel is located) to appoint two directors to manage dos Santos’ company, including her 25% stake in Unitel.

Declared the richest woman in Africa by Forbes in 2013, dos Santos – whose assets have been frozen in Angola and Portugal – is no longer listed in the 2021 edition of the US magazine.