Angolan Corruption Case Snares Irene Neto
Really? Carlos Manuel de São Vicente is currently a jailbird. On September 23 he was remanded in custody in Viana prison (Luanda) awaiting trial, where conditions might soon make him forget his ill-gotten billions. One by one, the bit-part players in the Dos Santos kleptocracy are being taken down, evidence of their crimes adding up against the long-ruling kleptocrat-in-chief who oversaw the outrageous theft of tens of billions of dollars of Angolan patrimony. It’s no easy matter to bring a former president to justice – especially one who secured a permanent amnesty for his actions – but the wheels of justice are turning inexorably towards his family, friends and former colleagues.
Angola’s first President, Dr Agostinho Neto, must be spinning in his grave. None other than his own daughter and son-in-law’s names have been added to the long, LONG, list of “illustrious” Angolan politicians and officials accused of corruption, embezzlement and money laundering.
Step forward Irene Alexandra da Silva Neto (main photo) and Carlos Manuel de São Vicente, who are under investigation in Switzerland, the UK and Angola and whose global bank accounts and property holdings have been frozen. It’s the same old story – a political appointee given unaccountable and unsupervised power to move funds around, who creates a web of shell companies to funnel thousands of millions of US dollars into secret bank accounts.
The power couple were already in the sights of the Swiss authorities, with a court-ordered freeze on their bank accounts there, totalling almost one-billion US dollars. Following on behind was a similar operation in Angola where on September 8, 2020 the office of the Attorney-General of the Republic (PGR) ordered the seizure of all assets, including bank accounts, hotels, buildings and stock, belonging to the AAA group of companies headed by São Vicente.
Carlos Manuel de São Vicente has declined to make any public comment. He told the magazine Novo Jornal, “At this point in time I can make no statement because legal proceedings are active and I have to respect both banking and judicial secrecy.”
There’s not really much he can say (other than “Guilty, M’Lud”?) given the weight of evidence against him and the increasing appetite across Europe (even in post-Brexit UK) to clamp down on financial crimes.
Once again Angola’s much-pillaged national petroleum giant provided both the lucre and the means for embezzlement, illegal diversion of funds and money laundering. São Vicente was parachuted into Sonangol in the late 1990s thanks to his political connections, becoming the Director for Risk and Management. At the time, the notorious ‘Triumvirate’ member Manuel Vicente was Sonangol’s Chairman, a master of the dark arts of diverting state funds into private accounts.
In July 2000 Sonangol created the AAA group, consisting of five separate companies: AAA Serviços Financeiros Lda.; AAA Pensões; AAA Correctores de Seguros; AAA Seguros Lda.; and, AAA Serviços de Risco Lda. The stated aim was to create a home-grown insurance monopoly for the oil and gas industry.
Interviewed by World Investment News in February 2001, São Vicente revealed that the AAA Group was being opened up to international investors who’d be allowed a stake of up to 30%.
A mere four years later, Manuel Vicente transferred a 70% stake in AAA Serviços Financeiros to an offshore (shell) company named AAA (Angola) Investors Ltd fronted by José Fernando Faria de Bastos, whose law firm has been linked to other corruption cases.
This was just one of many shady deals with a growing network of offshore shell companies using the AAA name.
In short, within two years 88% of AAA Seguros no longer belonged to Sonangol but to a company named AAA Activos, sole proprietor Carlos Manuel de São Vicente. Sonangol (who had underwritten 100% of the operating capital) now owned a mere 10% with the remaining 2% divided between AAA Pensões and the aforementioned São Vicente.
As so many others found, siphoning off hundreds of millions of petrodollars from Sonangol was as easy as stealing candy from a baby. By October 2012, São Vicente, as sole proprietor of AAA Activos, had put 100 million US dollars into the Angolan subsidiary of South Africa’s Standard Bank, giving him a 49% stake. Somehow, this leger-de-main, was approved by the Angolan Central Bank, the BNA.
A NETWORK OF OFFSHORE ‘SHELL’ COMPANIES
Manuel Vicente’s Sonangol created the first of the AAA Group’s offshore shell companies back in April 1999, registering AAA Reinsurance Ltd in Bermuda with four low-level Sonangol employees as ‘straw’ directors whose names were soon replaced by São Vicente.
In March 2001 São Vicente registered AAA (Angola) Investors Ltd, also in Bermuda.
He then registered AAA Insurance and Reinsurance Brokers (IRB) Ltd. in London, UK in July 2002. British records show a Bermudan company named Global One Ltd listed as owning 70% of the capital, with 30% owned by Sonangol.
Sonangol appeared to have regained overall control of IRB when AAA Serviços Financeiros Lda acquired 100% of AAA IRB in 2004. But it was a subterfuge. São Vicente had set up a company called AAA International Ltd in Bermuda a year in advance, along with a second company he called AAA Risk Solutions Ltd, with himself as sole chairman, director and shareholder.
By 2005, the entire stock of AAA IRB was transferred to AAA International Ltd (though curiously Global One Ltd still showed up on the annual accounts).
São Vicente registered yet another AAA company (AAA Activos Lda) in June 2009 only to transfer 99.91% of its stock to AAA International 10 months later.
Over the next 13 years he would use AAA International as a way-station for money transfers from his main employer Sonangol via the AAA Group’s Angolan and offshore companies, into secret Swiss bank accounts held in his own and his family’s names.
OVERBILLING AND PHANTOM PAYMENTS
São Vicente used the London-registered reinsurance company, AAA IRB, to inflate the policy premiums purportedly charged by AAA Seguros in Luanda. This was of no consequence to the international oil companies for whom it was a deductible production cost. However, the cost of these inflated premiums was borne twice over by Angola – not only in “production cost” losses, but also because approximately 85% of the hard currency income from the premiums was diverted overseas to the AAA shell companies, supposedly for the ‘reinsurance’ market. In fact only one fifth of that – the real market value – was actually invested in reinsurance.
A concrete example: in 2015, of the 44 million Euro insurance premium paid by the US multinational Exxon Mobil to AAA Seguros, a staggering 35.5 million Euros was transferred directly to São Vicente’s AAA companies in London and Bermuda.
Another documented example shows Sonangol itself was shamelessly duped into paying 16.7 million Euros to AAA Seguros, which banked only 3.2 million of that. São Vicente’s wholly-owned AAA shell company in Bermuda was the recipient of the other 13.5 million. The scale of the theft is breathtaking. And he got away with it for more than a decade.
Layers of opacity thanks to the vertiginous transfer of stock and capital back and fore between companies with similar names, is typical of the financial schemes undertaken by global criminals in an attempt to hide the paper trail. These days such transactions instead act as a red flag, alerting financial investigators to problems with the provenance of the funds.
Legal analyst Rui Verde told Maka Angola: “The evidence shows clear violations of several Angolan laws: influence peddling, conflict of interest, abuse of trust, tax evasion, grand fraud and money laundering.”
Clearly São Vicente was only able to commit these crimes thanks to the generally lax situation created by the former President and his cohort to facilitate their own embezzlement and diversion of Angolan public funds, in particular Sonangol’s petrodollars. Between 2010 and 2015 capital flight from Angola was more than double that of the preceding decade. In the four years since 2016, it has halved again.
Thanks to a new law and updated controls by Angola’s central bank (BNA) we know that in 2015 alone, São Vicente was able to transfer 800 million US dollars to his offshore company accounts.
By then his confidence in the impenetrability of his scam was so overweening, São Vicente felt able to blackmail President dos Santos into releasing yet more hard currency his way on the grounds that without foreign exchange AAA Seguros would not be able to renew some of the insurance policies and Angolan oil production could grind to a halt. The office of the President ordered the central bank and Sonangol to comply and their respective heads, José Pedro de Morais and Francisco de Lemos José Maria sent another 300 million US dollars into offshore AAA companies.
By now São Vicente had nearly a billion US dollars stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. How much more had he spread around London, Bermuda and who knows where else? But his greed was not satiated. It was nothing to inflate invoices by 75%. Or to further enrich himself by claiming the cost of salaries and expenses for the IRB office (himself and 14 employees) was more than 30 million US dollars a year.
Things began to unravel in December 2016 when Sonangol commissioned a report into oil production insurance, reviewing all the existing policies, and discovered the extent of the overbilling. That same month a presidential despatch ended AAA Seguros’s monopoly and the state-run national insurance company ENSA took over. On that day, AAA IRB had 72.6 million GBP in its account in London. One year later, the account held a mere 4 million GBP.
When his Swiss assets were frozen as part of that country’s investigation into his dealings, São Vicente tried to claim that the monies in his accounts were the “repayments” of “loans” he had allegedly made to the AAA Group between 2009 and 2016. Unsurprisingly, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of any loans from the London and Bermudan-registered AAA companies to the Angolan companies. Furthermore the named account holders were not any of the AAA companies but São Vicente, his wife and children.
AAA Seguros, the goose that laid the golden eggs for São Vicente’s mini-empire of AAA shell companies, lost its insurance licence in February 2020 and was shuttered. The estimated losses to Angola over the years it was run by Carlos São Vicente are estimated in the billions. What will wound Angolans even more is the fact that this monumental scandal involves Irene Neto, daughter of the revered Dr Agostinho Neto, the man who led the fight for independence from Portugal and was the country’s founding father and first President.
As a leading member of the ruling MPLA party, its central committee and political bureau, Irene Neto repeatedly spoke out against the corruption that had betrayed the people of Angola. As a member of parliament, she gave an interview in 2017 in which she railed against the “shameless, obscene and monumental plundering of state funds” under the 38-year rule of President dos Santos. And she rejected allegations that her own family had been a beneficiary.
“All of that is nothing more than lies, myths and ambiguity, whether deliberate or not. Our family has never been involved in immoral or illegal practices. We know who we are.”