Isabel dos Santos in Sonangol: Fox Put in Charge of the Henhouse

It doesn’t get any more blatant than this.  One of Africa’s worst kleptocrats (according to Forbes Magazine and Transparency International amongst others) demonstrates his unshakeable assurance that he does not expect to be called to account.

No lessons learnt here from the trial of Hissene Habre.

Barely a week after reports emerged that the ‘billionaire’ daughter of Angola’s President of 37 years (and counting) only amassed her fortune in stock acquisition thanks to a nifty diversion of funds from the state-owned oil company Sonangol, who does President José Eduardo dos Santos name to head the Angolan oil giant?  None other than his favoured heiress, Isabel.  

Should Angola now expect Isabel to repay Sonangol the seed money funnelled through front companies Exem Africa and Esperaza Holdings for her shares in the Portuguese oil and gas company GALP?   

Or is it more likely that she will organize a massive cover up before the international authorities (now alerted to allegations of improper use of state funds and money-laundering) publicly launch an official investigation?

After all her father’s repressive regime has managed to ‘lose’ billions upon billions of dollars of state oil revenues over the past two decades.  The only Angolans who have seen a peace dividend since the end of the civil war in 2002, are the presidential family and an expanding Angolan elite who, if dos Santos goes down, would go down with him.  

Only a few weeks ago Isabel’s name was being mentioned as a possible saviour for the UK retail giant, British Home Stores (BHS – now in liquidation). Surely Isabel might have anticipated that UK industry regulators (not to mention the mass media) would be sniffing at her trail?  With lawyers ever hopeful that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ might pay over the odds for this tarnished business, the negative publicity and escalating bid expectations scared away the serious contenders like Matalan’s John Hargreaves and Select Fashions’ Cafer Mahiroglu.  Cue demise of BHS.

Yet who now, outside Angola, would risk their fortune and credibility by getting involved with Isabel?  It would be like ploughing millions into a venture with Mobutu Sese Seko’s hapless heir in the twilight of the dictator’s rule.  It can’t end well.

And what of Isabel’s business partners.  Are the Amorim family (and others) starting to feel anxious?  At home the first family have bought their impunity.  They have everyone who matters in their pockets: from the security apparatus to the politicians, civil servants, judges, state media outlets and every businessman who entered a Faustian pact with the Dos Santos family in order to make a quick buck at the expense of the Angolan people.  They have been co-dependent with José Eduardo – if he goes down, they go down with him.

But for how much longer?  He is ailing and his daughter is unlikely to command the undivided loyalty of the armed forces or security apparatus.  There is an inevitable changing of the guard and it is only a matter of time.

For four decades José Eduardo dos Santos has been hiding behind a carefully cultivated façade as the shy technocrat, the petroleum engineer thrust into leadership as the compromise candidate after the untimely death of the national hero, Agostinho Neto.

Does anyone now doubt that behind the sweet face and timid demeanour was a rapacious and pitiless opportunist who turned comrades into accomplices in crime as he engineered his continued grip on power through a corrupt system of patronage?

His power base was built on suborning decent and honourable men and women who had made great sacrifices for the cause.  Few could resist his pitch:  a grateful nation rewards you for your years of service.  Your President has chosen you for a venture or position that will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, guarantee that your children have access to health and education overseas, allow you to live like kings.

In return, these grateful courtiers made like the three monkeys:  see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.   

Don’t be deceived – they probably knew then (and certainly know now) that the great Angolan con trick couldn’t last forever.  Plunging oil prices have them vibrating with anxiety.  All the President’s men have their escape plans in place: the second homes in Portugal, South Africa or Brazil; the secret bank accounts scattered around every tax haven in the world.  When the going gets tough, dos Santos’s ‘toughs’ will get going.

And yet – like so many deluded dictators before him –  in these twilight final years, Zedú aims to cement his immortality by forging a dynasty.  Insiders in Luanda have been predicting for some time that the imperial succession being planned, would bypass the less-than-stellar sons for the first born.  Senior MPLA figures have frequently talked up Isabel’s chances of succeeding her father at the helm. Now he is positioning her at the apex of the money tree that has for so long funded the Dos Santos endeavours.

Apparently Sonangol’s new mission statement is “Fazer mais com menos”.  Literally, you can translate it as “Do more with less”.  Or metaphorically: “Make more profit for ourselves despite lower oil prices”.