Oil: A Lesson in Hand-Washing for Daddy’s Girls

Pay attention Ivanka Trump: this is a fun way to ramp up your profits! First you take control of a guaranteed money-maker (or more accurately, your daddy the President hands it to you); then you make sure that you have a majority (or at least hefty) stake in the key partner companies that produce, support or market your products. It’s a no-brainer. All you need is for daddy to win political power and deal you in.

This is a true story in a post-truth world. Angola’s first daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is quite peeved that media upstarts dare to question her right (birthright) to have a finger in every succulent pie in Angola’s limited buffet. When accusations of nepotism are aired, when reports document suspicious business dealings, she stamps her pretty foot and sulks: “I am a victim of political intrigue”.

Anointed president of the board of the state oil giant, Sonangol, by her father, President José Eduardo dos Santos, Isabel subverts reality on a daily basis, denying self-evident contradictions, affirming the rightness of all her words and deeds. But you only have to cast more than a cursory glance at this mess to see that her own actions give rise to all the charges laid against her: of nepotism, corruption and self-enrichment.

Isabel bypasses with ease the legal and constitutional checks and balances to do as she pleases, barely trying to cover her tracks. That is, if she bothers at all. Every day brings a new example of how one hand washes the other.

On this occasion, Isabel’s involvement is barely masked by the use of Sonangol’s board director and her cousin Manuel Lemos (by his marriage to the eldest daughter of the President’s sister, Marta dos Santos) as a go-between. Her “orders from above” convinced the managers responsible for contracting vendor services for Sonangol, that their shopping basket should be filled, exclusively, by Isabel’s supermarket: Candando.

And so it came to pass. Since July this year, on Manuel Lemos’s instructions, Candando became the sole supplier of provisions to the Sonangol canteens.
In fact, Lemos was only putting his seal on a deal that Isabel had already instituted a month earlier. As soon as her feet were under the boardroom table, by ‘royal’ appointment, her store became Sonangol’s preferred supplier.

Sonangol spends close to US $100 million a year on Christmas and New Year hampers, parties and special events alone. Corporate gifting is a way of courting favor. Thus many of the goodies circle back around to the President, his family and innumerable dependents and acolytes. It’s all too simple. For Isabel dos Santos to get her hands on yet another slice of the pie, all she had to do was issue a couple of instructions from head office.

Let’s underline this: Isabel dos Santos is the daughter of the Angolan President.
This cannot be re-stated too often. Nepotism is a key cog in the machine of kleptocracy. Isabel would not be President of Sonangol, if she were not the President’s daughter. Sonangol is the state-owned monopoly that controls the oil industry, Angola’s main source of income and wealth.
Anyone with less clout would have at least attempted to cover their tracks: to go through the motions of organizing a public tender before awarding the lucrative supply contract to themselves.

The arrogance of entitlement with impunity means she has no need for any cosmetic sleight-of-hand. Once her attention is drawn to any aspect of the operation which offers an opportunity for further self-enrichment, she grabs it like a cat going for the cream. And of course her actions are all cushioned by her relationship to the supreme leader.

The Dos Santos family live on far too elevated a plane to care what the Angolan people think of them but they can hardly complain if people comment adversely on their actions. After all, when a thief flaunts their ill-gotten gains, people are bound to point and jeer.

It’s such a minor detail, after all. One piddling decision to award a supply monopoly to Candando, which happens to be the most expensive of all the supermarket chains in Angola. But it reveals a cruel reality: that the President’s daughter is not interested, not in the slightest, in restructuring Sonangol to create a healthy business. She is not losing a moment of sleep over the catastrophic state of Sonangol’s finances and how to plot its recovery. On the contrary, her brain is fully engaged in self-serving deals.

At a time of increased and worsening poverty for 90 percent of Angolans, any other business manager would be all too conscious of the grave responsibility of steering a ship as off course as Sonangol. While parents are not even able to afford bread, what kind of skewed morality thinks it is okay for a business in trouble to continue to splash out on luxuries while cutting essentials. And what kind of business ethic allows the Sonangol president to stick up a middle finger at conflict of interest rules, to ensure she profits from the misspending.

The President’s daughter takes immorality to levels previously inconceivable, even in serve-yourself countries like Angola where there is almost no limit to abuses of power. She can hardly cast herself as a victim of political intrigue in this scenario.

No. The real victims of political intrigue are the untold millions of Angolans who are prevented from meaningful participation in the life of their own country. The real victims are the millions of Angolans who are silenced, bullied, beaten and jailed when they try to speak out against the theft of their patrimony (because public companies belong to all).

The real victims are all the Angolans who for the past 37 years have been denied their fundamental human and democratic rights, who are made poorer so that the President’s daughter can become Africa’s richest woman.