Who’s the Daddy Now?

Spare a thought for the sons and daughters of crooked Presidents.  Growing up as pampered princes and princesses, educated at the finest private schools at home or abroad, groomed to head up multi-million-dollar business empires and succeed the founder of the dynasty into unimaginable power and riches, these heirs apparently believe they are untouchable.

For as long as daddy is President, his dynasty believe themselves to have total impunity from investigation and prosecution… but when his power wanes, that delusion can be cruelly shattered and like any spoiled child, in utter shock and disbelief that there may be consequences for their actions, the brat stamps their foot and bawls: “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

Step forward Isabel dos Santos, the favourite daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, the former President of Angola, now revealed as the chief Kleptocrat of a corrupt regime that for nearly four decades treated the national treasury as if it were a private purse.

The woman who liked to style herself as a self-made business genius and Africa’s first female billionaire as profiled in Forbes magazine – was later unmasked by the same magazine:

“As best as we can trace, every major Angolan investment held by Dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action. Her story is a rare window into the same, tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world. For President dos Santos it’s a foolproof way to extract money from his country, while keeping a putative arm’s-length distance away”.

This is not a new revelation. For years, evidence had made its way into the public domain showing that Isabel dos Santos’s entire business empire was built on privileged access to Angolan state funds, including seed money “lent” to her by Angola’s state oil company Sonangol, which was never repaid.

To her shock and horror, Angola wants that money back – and so much more. The Angolan Attorney General had a surprise Christmas present for Isabel: he sought and was granted an injunction to freeze her assets pending a trial to secure the repayment of over a billion US dollars.

The signs that Isabel was in legal jeopardy have been there for years: report after report showing the Dos Santos family and associates embezzled billions of dollars from oil revenues which they diverted into shell companies set up in offshore tax havens with lax supervision for the sole purpose of moving large sums between these companies which were all controlled by family members, political and military allies of the-then President.

To the surprise of absolutely no-one, Isabel has begun a PR campaign in the media to complain that she is the victim of a politically motivated, secret and unfair process to destroy her business empire.

Surely only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved? Or not.

Year after year, insiders have leaked nuggets of information to the investigative journalist and civil rights activist behind Maka Angola, Rafael Marques de Morais, who fearlessly brought these allegations to the attention of the authorities and the public.  It was Rafael Marques who constantly faced politically motivated harassment, arrest, ill treatment, imprisonment and threats against his life.

As the saying goes, “there is no honour among thieves”. In every criminal endeavour, at some point, there is a falling-out. Did someone fall out of favour? Receive too small a cut of the action? Dissatisfied co-conspirators tend to voice their grievances and in spite of all the best efforts of expert consultants, lawyers and financiers, bits and pieces of the true picture start to emerge and eventually come to the attention of investigators.

For Maka Angola it was a civic duty to alert the appropriate authorities. For as long as Dos Santos was in power almost everyone in a position to take action was complicit. That is no longer the case. His successor as President, João Lourenço, is slowly but surely making good on his vow to tackle corruption and recover as much of the money looted from the country as he possibly can, in spite of the complicity of so many linked to the previous Administration.

Before he could be persuaded to step down, Dos Santos negotiated for himself immunity from prosecution. That may yet be tested.  One by one, those who engaged in the criminal enterprises he encouraged are falling. And they include those family members used as a front for the diversion of public money into private business interests, including his favourite children.

Isabel’s dire warnings that destroying her companies will cause economic chaos and harm thousands of employees are just empty threats. The injunction has frozen only her personal assets, meaning she cannot access the funds in her personal accounts or sell stocks and shares.

The web of deceit that hitherto protected her is unravelling. To add to her ‘Christmas present’ from the Angolan Attorney-General, and in spite of her PR efforts, just one day into the New Year the Bank of Portugal announced it is looking into her extensive holdings in Portugal and re-examining her suitability as a shareholder in Portuguese banks.

Isabel has homes in Lisbon and also in London (e.g. one GBP 13 million pound mansion in an exclusive gated community in Kensington is ostensibly owned by one of her offshore shell companies, Wilkson Properties Ltd.).  There are indications that the UK’s National Crime Agency is looking into the source of the funds used to buy this and other properties and has the power to seize properties acquired by ‘unexplained wealth’.

The authorities in London have previously helped uncover the financial crimes of one of the Dos Santos children, unmasking the attempt by Isabel’s half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos (and his Angolan-Swiss associate Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais) to transfer 500 million US dollars out of Angola to Switzerland via London.  

Isabel has already given notice that she intends to use some of her ‘billion-dollar’ fortune to mount a legal challenge to those who are going after her but she casts doubt on whether real justice is available to her in the Angolan courts even though it was her own father to oversaw the Justice system and laws.  The man she accuses of a political vendetta, President Lourenço, has called on her to cooperate but how feasible is it that Isabel would cooperate in bringing down her entire family?  

Only if they are unable to access ANY of the funds stashed overseas. Only if there is nowhere left to hide.