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Insight & Analysis - February 11, 2022

Isabel dos Santos: The Rise and Fall of the Richest Woman in Africa

Once the richest woman in Africa, Isabel dos Santos built an empire at the expense of the impoverished but oil-rich country.

The Rise of Africa’s Richest Woman

In 2013, Forbes declared Isabel dos Santos as the richest woman in Africa with an estimated worth of $3.5 billion. Her father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, was the former president of Angola and ruled the country from 1979 to 2017. She amassed her wealth through significant holdings in Angola’s banking, cement, diamonds, and telecommunication industries. Through this, she became a billionaire and the most powerful businesswoman in her country.

Her investments in Portuguese enterprises accounted for more than half of her assets, thus giving her worldwide prestige. Forbes announcement in January 2013 about her worth was, therefore, a welcome development for the impoverished but oil-rich country as the administration hailed the news as a source of national pride, citing her as live proof that the country has arrived.

However, her wealth grew immensely from looting the country. This is because most of her investments came from taking a piece of a firm that wanted to do business in Angola or through her father’s political power. This indicates the kleptocratic rule that plagues countries endowed with resources throughout the world.

The Fall of the Richest Woman in Africa

Isabel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, fell under the administration of Joo Lourenço, Angola’s new president, who gained power in September 2017 when Dos Santos’ father resigned. Lourenço committed to fighting the corruption that has become synonymous with Angola. According to Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Angola is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 142 out of 180 countries.

With the corruption allegations levelled against her in Angola and frozen assets in three countries, her businesses are now a ghost of what they once were. The current president of Angola fired her as the head of state of national oil corporation Sonangol, whose father’s government appointed her in June 2016.

However, the most significant change occurred in December 2019 when an Angolan court froze Isabel dos Santos and her husband’s assets in the nation as part of a corruption inquiry, including a stake in mobile telecom provider Unitel and numerous banks. Also, the court, in January 2020, accused the couple and one of their business colleagues of causing the Angolan government to lose at least $1.1 billion in damages.

Dos Santos and Dokolo were charged with embezzlement and money laundering by Angola’s attorney general in January 2020. She released a statement at the time, claiming that the allegations against her were “extremely misleading and untrue” and she is a “private businesswoman who always functioned within the law”.

During the same month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a  Luanda Leaks compilation of more than 715,000 documents that contain detailed information about Isabel Dos Santos and her assets. In all, the assets seized in Angola are estimated to be worth at least $300 million, frozen or nationalised assets by Portugal, and the Netherlands together are presently worth over $1.3 billion. Her mansions, yacht, cash, and other assets might be valued as much as $400 million, and $430 million overdue debt to be paid to Unitel.

Luanda Leaks also shed light on Isabel dos Santos’ facilitators, including McKinsey and PwC, including a group of bankers and attorneys who assisted her in acquiring her riches and moving it overseas.

According to Professor Soares de Oliveira from Oxford, life isn’t the same as it used to be for Isabel Dos Santos, “She’s been humbled, she’s been cut down to size. It just shows that in a lot of these authoritarian places, economic power derives from political power, not the other way around. The moment you lose political power, you can be had. You’re vulnerable all over the world”.

READ ALSO: Former Africa’s Richest Woman, Isabel dos Santos, Suffers Another Setback

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