Luanda Leaks: How Africa’s Richest Woman Exploited Family Ties, Shell Companies and inside Deals to Build an Empire
19 Jan 2020 – Isabel dos Santos made a fortune at the expense of the Angolan people, Luanda Leaks reveals.
- Two decades of unscrupulous deals that made Isabel dos Santos Africa’s wealthiest woman and left oil- and diamond-rich Angola one of the poorest countries on Earth.
- A web of more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries linked to Isabel dos Santos or her husband, Sindika Dokolo, including 94 in secrecy jurisdictions like Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong.
- How a cadre of Western business advisers moved money, set up companies, audited accounts, suggested ways to avoid taxes and turned a blind eye to red flags that experts say should have raised serious concern.
- Directed hundreds of millions of loans and contracts to her companies.
She spun a story the world wanted to believe: a self-made billionaire who had risen in a male-dominated business world in an African country ravaged by civil war and poverty.
In public appearances in the spring of 2017, Isabel dos Santos, then head of Angola’s giant state oil company, Sonangol Group, mingled with Hollywood legends on the French Riviera and charmed oil tycoons in Houston with tales of hard work and accomplishment. Wearing her trademark black blazer at the London Business School, the 44-year-old chairwoman told a packed audience that leaders should be chosen on their merits.
“I’ve been managing companies for a long time, starting them from small, building them up, going through every single stage of what it takes for a company to be successful,” she said.
Left unmentioned in London: That she had been installed in the top job at Sonangol by her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, the longtime Angolan autocrat. That over the years he had awarded her companies public contracts, tax breaks, telecom licenses and diamond-mining rights. And that even as she spoke to the crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs, she was paving the way for one of her most brazen insider deals — the payment of tens of millions of dollars from the state oil monopoly to a company in Dubai controlled by her business partner.
Luanda Leaks, a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 36 media partners, exposes two decades of unscrupulous deals that made dos Santos Africa’s wealthiest woman and left oil- and diamond-rich Angola one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Based on more than 715,000 confidential financial and business records and hundreds of interviews, Luanda Leaks offers a case study of a growing global problem: Thieving rulers, often called kleptocrats, and their family members and associates are moving ill-gotten public money to offshore secrecy jurisdictions, often with the help of prominent Western firms. From there, the money is used to buy up properties, businesses and other valuable assets, or it is simply hidden away, safe from tax authorities and criminal investigators.
“The movement of dirty money through shell companies into the international financial system to be laundered, recycled, and deployed for political influence is accelerating,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “It heightens the danger of political violence and human rights abuses.”
Public corruption drags down economies, erodes faith in democracy and diverts money that could otherwise be spent on hospitals, schools and roads. Transparency International rates Angola as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The average life expectancy is just 60. About 5% of infants die before their first birthday.
The Luanda Leaks documents were provided to ICIJ by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, or PPLAFF, a Paris-based advocacy group. The trove contains emails, internal memos from dos Santos companies, contracts, consultant reports, tax returns, private audits and videos of business meetings. The documents, in Portuguese and English, date back to 1980, but mostly cover the last decade. They include descriptions of palatial homes in Lisbon and Monaco and a deluxe vacation featuring private aircraft and a speedboat. Emails show underlings fretting about risky bank loans and financial advisers fielding dos Santos’ requests to pay a bill from luxury fashion designer Valentino and open a new bank account offshore.
ICIJ found that dos Santos, her husband and their intermediaries built a business empire with more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries, including at least 94 in secrecy jurisdictions like Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong. Over the past decade, these companies got consulting jobs, loans, public works contracts and licenses worth billions of dollars from the Angolan government.
Dos Santos and her husband used their archipelago of shell companies to avoid scrutiny and invest in real estate, energy and media businesses. Documents also show businesses linked to the couple steering consulting fees, loans and contracts to shell companies they control in the British Virgin Islands, the Netherlands and Malta.
In one case identified by ICIJ, thousands of families were forcibly evicted from their Luanda homes on land that was part of a redevelopment project involving a dos Santos company.
They also secured large stakes in banks, allowing them to finance this empire even as other financial institutions backed away amid concerns about dos Santos’ ties to the Angolan state.
The family’s worsening reputation didn’t spook brand-name accountants and consultants, which continued to work for dos Santos-linked businesses, ICIJ found. Big companies and state-backed entities from China and the Netherlands continued to partner with the family’s private businesses.
Angolan government officials told ICIJ that they are investigating whether dos Santos and associates looted hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s oil and diamond-trading companies. That includes a $38 million payment in November 2017 from Sonangol to a company in Dubai controlled by a dos Santos associate, a transfer ordered hours after Angola’s new president fired her from her job as head of the state oil company.
The officials also said that public contracts awarded by her father’s regime to her companies were inflated by more than $1 billion.
In December, two weeks after ICIJ questioned Angola’s government about dos Santos’ business dealings, an Angolan court froze her major assets, including banks, a telecom company and a brewery. The government is trying to recover $1.1 billion that it says is owed by dos Santos, her husband and a close associate of the couple.
Through their U.S. lawyers, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, dos Santos and her husband denied wrongdoing and said they did not profit from political connections.
Carter-Ruck, a UK law firm representing Isabel dos Santos, said the businesswoman denied all wrongdoing, including any allegations of looting, fraud, contract overcharging and other misconduct.
The law firm said in a 10-page response that dos Santos didn’t use offshore vehicles to avoid paying taxes. She denied any of her companies evicted people. Dos Santos and the owner of the Dubai consulting company said the Dubai payments were for legitimate services provided to the state oil company.
In recent interviews, dos Santos, whose fortune is estimated at about $2 billion, said the government is on a “witch hunt” against her family. She denied that contracts were steered to her or that she was shown favoritism when her father was president.
Shortly after the asset freeze, she posted a reassuring message on Twitter for her followers and employees. She condemned the government’s move as politically motivated.
Dos Santos declined ICIJ’s requests for an interview. In an interview with BBC News, which asked several questions on behalf of ICIJ, dos Santos called the inquiry a “political persecution.”
“My holdings are commercial,” she said. “There are no proceeds from contracts or public contracts, or money that has been deviated from public funds.”
Her husband, Sindika Dokolo, told Radio France Internationale, one of ICIJ’s partners in France, that the Angolan government is wrongfully targeting him and his wife.
“They want to blame us for all the corruption and bankruptcy in Angola,” Dokolo said. “We pay taxes in Europe, and we’re Angola’s biggest tax contributor. We’ve worked and invested a lot in this country, more than many others.”
Dos Santos’ father and Angola’s former president, José Eduardo, didn’t respond to ICIJ’s requests for comment.
A Daughter of ‘Comrade Number One’
Isabel dos Santos, age 46, was born in an Azerbaijan oil town, Baku, where her parents met while attending a state university devoted to oil and chemistry.
Her Russian mother, Tatiana Kukanova, was studying geology. Her father — the future Angolan president and “Comrade Number One” — was then an exiled guerilla leader in the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (known by its Portuguese acronym MPLA).
In 1975, the Portuguese colony became one of the last in Africa to gain independence. José Eduardo dos Santos returned home with his wife and infant daughter. Kukanova went to work at Sonangol, the newly formed and fast-growing national oil company. A former executive recalls seeing Isabel at the office sitting on her mother’s lap.
José Eduardo quickly rose through the ranks of the now-ruling MPLA.
The death of Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, propelled the former guerilla fighter to power in 1979. With a brutal civil war dividing Angola José Eduardo moved swiftly to cement control, placing friends in key posts. He acquired near-dictatorial powers, including over Sonangol.
The oil company would become a pillar of the regime and the Angolan economy, accounting for more than 90 percent of total export revenue. Oil paid for everything — roads, bridges, food imports and the military.
The marriage to Kukanova didn’t last. In 1978, dos Santos fathered a son, José Filomeno, in a separate relationship. The following year, Kukanova moved with her daughter to London. Isabel spent her teens attending an elite prep school and went on to King’s College London, where she received an engineering degree. Her financial managers, the leaked documents show, later referred to her as “The Engineer.”
In 1992, President dos Santos changed the Angolan constitution to say the president could not be prosecuted for any official actions “except in the event of bribery or treason to the motherland.” The new language opened the way for him to give public assets to family and friends. Dos Santos treated Angola “like his personal farm,” Salvador Freire, a leading human rights lawyer in Luanda, told ICIJ.
His eldest daughter was a prime beneficiary.
In 1999, the president set up the Angola Selling Corp. with an exclusive license to market Angolan diamonds, another pillar of the country’s economy.
He gave a separate company — controlled by Isabel dos Santos and her mother — a 24.5% share in Angola Selling Corp.
A year later, the dos Santos government issued a hugely valuable mobile telecommunications license, one of the country’s first, to a company called Unitel. Among its owners and founders: Isabel dos Santos.
“Our proposal was one of the most daring and aggressive ones,” she told the BBC.
In December 2002, hundreds of guests crowded into a 17th-century Luanda cathedral to witness the wedding of Isabel, then 29, to Sindika Dokolo, age 30, a wealthy Congolese businessman and art collector. With a passion for Porsches, American professional basketball and African art, the outgoing Dokolo would become a key business partner to his wife and her champion. She is a “general on the battlefield,” he said in a 2017 interview.
By her early 30s, dos Santos owned luxury apartments in London and Lisbon worth millions. She had a taste for things Western: art shows in Miami, Dolce & Gabbana fashions, weekends in Paris. And she remained close to her father. At family gatherings, the two would sometimes pull out guitars and jam together. In a TV interview years later, she said that from her first day at school, when her father held her hand and gave her courage, he remained a “great source of inspiration.”
Her father’s connections opened doors to one of her most important business relationships: Portuguese billionaire Américo Amorim.
Amorim had started in his family’s cork business before expanding into energy, real estate and banks.
With an oil boom creating demand for new financial institutions, Amorim and the president’s daughter teamed up to launch Banco BIC SA in 2005. It is now one of the largest banks in Angola, with $4.2 billion in assets. The partners subsequently moved into cement, real estate and energy.
To manage their growing empire, Isabel dos Santos and her husband set up an operational base in central Lisbon on posh Avenida da Liberdade above a Louis Vuitton flagship store. Mario Filipe Moreira Leite da Silva, an accountant formerly with the Big Four firm PwC, joined their financial management firm, Fidequity, and took charge of their finances.
Silva, named one of the country’s most powerful people by a Portuguese news channel, would become a key adviser and troubleshooter for the couple and a director at more than a dozen of their companies.
For legal work, she turned to Jorge Brito Pereira, a prominent legal scholar who at the time was a partner with the powerhouse Lisbon-based law firm PLMJ.
In 2005, Amorim and Sonangol closed a deal that would give the couple a valuable stake in an energy company at a bargain-basement price. It was their first major international deal.
The Portuguese billionaire and Sonangol formed an investment firm, Amorim Energia BV, which then bought a third of Portugal’s high-flying energy company, Galp Energia.
The idea for the deal came from Isabel dos Santos, her husband told Radio France Internationale. “The goal was to work on the whole [oil supply] chain from production to pumps, including the refineries,” Dokolo said. “Sonangol had neither the connections nor the skills to put together such an ambitious business plan.”
The Amorim-Sonangol joint venture named Dokolo to its board. Dos Santos had “significant influence” on the company, according to a confidential report on her holdings prepared by her financial advisers.
A year later, Sonangol sold 40% of its stake in the joint venture to Dokolo’s Swiss company, Exem Holding AG. The purchase price was $99 million, but Sonangol agreed to lend Exem most of the money needed to complete the sale, receiving just $15 million up front.
In the interview with the BBC, dos Santos said the deal benefited all sides. “This investment generated a large amount of return for all the parties that invested jointly,” she said. ”There are no wrongdoings.”
Dokolo told ICIJ that the loan was fully repaid in 2017. Sonangol said it rejected the repayment offered in Angolan currency as a violation of the deal. It considers the balance outstanding.
Sonangol didn’t explain why it agreed to sell the stake in the lucrative joint-venture to the then-president’s son-in-law.
Today the stake is worth about $800 million.
Isabel dos Santos’ fortune was growing. Her advisers looked for ways to protect it.
In 2009, her business empire had expanded to include stakes in Portuguese banks and media companies, which provided her with millions of dollars in dividends.
She renovated her $2.5 million duplex penthouse in Lisbon. One invoice reviewed by ICIJ showed $50,000 spent on curtains, $9,200 on chaise lounges and nearly $7,500 on gym equipment from Harrods. Six years later, she bought a second apartment on one of the same floors for $2.3 million, though local land registry records don’t indicate if the two units were merged into one.
Over the coming decade, the dos Santos team would set up shell companies in many tax havens but quickly settled on a favorite: Malta.
The tiny Mediterranean nation, now embroiled in a political crisis over the 2017 car-bomb murder of an investigative journalist, is notorious for lax enforcement of laws against money laundering. Its officials rarely ask questions about the origin of foreign cash deposits or follow up on allegations of corruption or illicit money flows, according to a recent International Monetary Fund report.
Among the documents in the Luanda Leaks is a 16-page guide on the tax advantages of Malta, written by dos Santos’ lawyers at PLMJ. The 2015 pitch explained how, by incorporating a company in Malta, a client can start a business and collect dividends, interest and royalties without paying any withholding taxes.
- Read: How Africa’s Wealthiest Woman Made Her Fortune
- Read: Western advisers helped an autocrat’s daughter amass and shield a fortune
- Learn: From colonization to kleptocracy – A history of Angola
- Explore: How the couple grew a business empire from 1992 to today
- Watch: Launda Leaks wrapped up in 3 minutes
- Meet: Three of our partners talk about the investigation
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories. Founded in 1997 by the respected American journalist Chuck Lewis, ICIJ was launched as a project of the Center for Public Integrity to extend the Center’s style of watchdog journalism, focusing on issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power. Backed by the Center and its computer-assisted reporting specialists, public records experts, fact-checkers and lawyers, ICIJ reporters and editors provide real-time resources and state-of-the-art tools and techniques to journalists around the world. MORE…
Editing: Ben Hallman, Dean Starkman, Emilia Diaz-Struck, Richard H.P. Sia, Tom Stites, Joe Hillhouse, Fergus Shiel, Margot Williams, Hamish Boland-Rudder, Amy Wilson-Chapman and Carlos Monteiro
Contributors: Micael Pereira, Karlijn Kuijpers, Sonia Rolley, Kyra Gurney, Christian Broennimann, Margot Gibbs, Anita Raghavan, Antonio Cucho, Mago Torres, Pauliina Sinauer, Rigoberto Carvajal, Anne L’Hote, Soline Ledésert, Jelena Cosic, James Oliver and Gerard Ryle
Tags: Africa, Angola, Capitalism, Corruption, Economics, Elites, Exposé, Finance, Football Leaks, Isabel dos Santos, Luanda Leaks, Rui Pinto, Super rich, Whistleblowing
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- From Colonization to Kleptocracy: A History of Angola and Isabel dos Santos
- Read the Luanda Leaks Documents
- Luanda Leaks: How Africa’s Richest Woman Exploited Family Ties, Shell Companies and inside Deals to Build an Empire