Angola: Billionaire Says Anti-Corruption Drive is Jeopardizing Rule of Law

Former president José Eduardo dos Santos, son José Filomeno dos Santos and daughter Isabel dos Santos (file photo).

The daughter of Angola's former president said she was blindsided by a court decision to freeze her assets.

"There were no communications. We never received the summons. None of our companies received the notification," Isabel Dos Santos told VOA in a Skype interview. "We were never aware that there was a process going on at all. So really there was no due process."

Dos Santos is the eldest daughter of Angola's long-serving President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos who stepped down in 2017. She has been called Africa's richest woman whose net worth, according to Forbes, is about $2.3 billion.

She is now the target of an anti-corruption campaign led by her father's successor.

Her portfolio includes a 25% stake in the Angolan mobile phone company Unitel, 25 percent stake in Angolan bank Banco BIC SA and other interests in cable television, a supermarket chain and another bank and she says the Angolan government's actions - rather than combatting corruption - are going to hurt thousands of people.

Anti-corruption campaign

Upon taking office, President Joao Lourenco, a member of the same political party known as the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola or MPLA, pledged to root out corruption in the country.

Last month, a court accused Isabel Dos Santos and her husband of causing the state to incur more than $1 billion in losses through a scheme that involved two state-owned companies transferring foreign currency abroad and never being repaid.

But Dos Santos denies the charges and believes the move amounts to a politically-driven effort to target her family. While she did not specify the size of the assets involved, she said the freeze will affect thousands of employees.

"The main reason I'm concerned is because this has a huge impact on many, many companies. And these are private sector companies. [These are] thousands of employees," she said. "These are daily operations of things like supermarkets that have to open every day and sell bread some milk; things like bank agencies that have to open every day and deliver cash services to our clients."

Isabel dos Santos is not the first member of her family to face legal scrutiny. In 2018, her brother, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, was arrested and accused of trying to steal $500 million while he ran Angola's sovereign wealth fund. He was freed last March but is facing a trial before the country's Supreme Court.

In a September speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lourenco said the country is determined to root out corruption in order to restore citizens' faith in government as well as create a more favorable business environment.

"Corruption has reached very alarming levels," Lourenco said. "The difference is that in the recent past … corruption existed but was not fought there was a state of impunity. But today the situation is not the same which means corruption is being fought and is being fought in a very courageous way."

Other observers applauded the decision to target the Dos Santos family, saying it sends a strong signal that no one is above the law. "It's a great lesson for current leaders who continue to think that justice will only hit a few," journalist and researcher Rafael Marques de Morais told VOA's Portuguese service.

'Never served in government'

But Dos Santos denies she is part of a system of corruption or patronage from her father's years in power. She said she never served in government or played a political role in the country. The closest she came was as a part of a team of businesspeople who helped rescue the national oil company in 2016 when it was $20 billion in debt.

"'I'm just a businesswoman. I'm an entrepreneur. I work in 60 countries. I work in South America, I work in Asia, I work in Europe and I work in technology. So I don't work with the government and contracts," she said.

Dos Santos added she supports the anti-corruption campaign but believes it is being used to target family members of the previous president in the run-up to internal elections for the leadership of the ruling MPLA political party.

Dos Santos also pointed out that Lourenco held a number of leadership positions prior to becoming president including Minister of Defence. She said between 2017 and 2019 he issued $3 billion worth of government contracts without putting them out for "public tender" or a competitive bidding process.

She said this shows he is part of an old, corrupt system in the MPLA party and not the reformer he claims to be. "For me it's just the way the political party works, MPLA works. It is the continuing of the MPLA tradition. And I regret to say I feel that very little has changed," she said.

She said rather than view this as proof that no one is above the law, the measures will serve as a warning to other Angolan entrepreneurs and she worries they will be used as a political weapon.  "In a country that I believe should have the rule of law, like Angola, I'm very concerned for the future," she said. "I'm very concerned that these kinds of measures are going to be just arbitrarily put on someone from the private sector. Then it could be me today but it could be anyone else tomorrow."

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