How Africa’s richest woman, Ms Dos Santos, ‘ripped off Angola’
BBC Panorama Team
Leaked documents reveal how Africa’s richest woman made her fortune through exploiting her own country, and corruption.
Isabel dos Santos got access to lucrative deals involving land, oil, diamonds and telecoms when her father was president of Angola, a southern African country rich in natural resources.
The documents show how she and her husband were allowed to buy valuable State assets in a series of suspicious deals.
Ms Dos Santos says the allegations against her are entirely false and that there is a politically motivated witch-hunt by the Angolan government.
The former president’s daughter has made the UK her home and owns expensive properties in central London.
She is already under criminal investigation by the authorities in Angola for corruption and her assets in the country have been frozen.
Now BBC Panorama has been given access to more than 700,000 leaked documents about the billionaire’s business empire.
Most were obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistle-blowers in Africa and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Andrew Feinstein, the head of Corruption Watch, says the documents show how Ms Dos Santos exploited her country at the expense of ordinary Angolans.
“Every time she appears on the cover of some glossy magazine somewhere in the world, every time that she hosts one of her glamorous parties in the south of France, she is doing so by trampling on the aspirations of the citizens of Angola.”
The oil connection
One of the most suspicious deals was run from London through a UK subsidiary of the Angolan state oil company Sonangol.
Ms Dos Santos had been put in charge of the struggling Sonangol in 2016, thanks to a presidential decree from her father Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who kept a tight grip on his country for the 38 years he was in power.
But when he retired in September 2017 her position was soon under threat, even though his hand-picked successor came from the same party. Ms Dos Santos was sacked two months later.
Many Angolans have been surprised at the way that President João Lourenço has gone after the business interests of his predecessor’s family.
The leaked documents show that as she left Sonangol, Ms Dos Santos approved $58 million (Sh5.8 billion) of suspicious payments to a consultancy company in Dubai called Matter Business Solutions.
She says she has no financial interest in Matter, but the documents reveal it was run by her business manager and owned by a friend.
Her lawyers said her actions with regard to the Matter payments were lawful and that she had not authorised payments after she had been dismissed from Sonangol.
They said: “All invoices paid were in relation to services contracted and agreed between the two parties, under a contract that was approved with the full knowledge and approval of the Sonangol Board of Directors.”
The ICIJ and Panorama have also uncovered new details about the business deals that made Ms Dos Santos rich.
Much of her fortune is based on her ownership of a stake in the Portuguese energy company Galp, which one of her companies bought from Sonangol in 2006.
The documents show it only had to pay 15 per cent of the price upfront and that the remaining €63 million ($70 million) was turned into a low-interest loan from Sonangol.
Under the generous terms of the loan, her debt to the Angolan people didn’t have to be repaid for 11 years.
Her stake in Galp is now worth more than €750 million. Ms Dos Santos’s company did offer to repay the Sonangol loan in 2017.
The repayment offer should have been rejected because it didn’t include almost €9m of interest owing. But Ms Dos Santos was in charge of Sonangol at the time and she accepted the money as full payment of her own debt.
She was fired six days later and the payment was returned by the new Sonangol management.
Ms Dos Santos says she initiated the purchase of the stake in Galp, and that Sonangol made money from the deal as well.
“There’s absolutely no wrongdoing in any of those transactions. This investment is the investment that in history has generated the most benefit for the national oil company and all the contracts that were drafted are perfectly legal contracts, there are no wrongdoings.”
Her lawyers say the repayment offer in 2017 covered what Sonangol had indicated was owed.
The diamond connection
It’s a similar story in the diamond industry. Ms Dos Santos’s husband, Sindika Dokolo, signed a one-sided agreement in 2012 with Angolan state diamond company Sodiam.
They were supposed to be 50-50 partners in a deal to buy a stake in the Swiss luxury jeweller De Grisogono.
But it was funded by the state company. The documents show that 18 months after the deal, Sodiam had put $79 million into the partnership, while Mr Dokolo had only invested $4 million.
Sodiam also awarded him a €5 million success fee for brokering the deal, so he didn’t have to use any of his own money.
The diamond deal gets even worse for the Angolan people. The documents reveal how Sodiam borrowed all the cash from a private bank in which Ms Dos Santos is the biggest shareholder.
Sodiam has to pay nine per cent interest and the loan was guaranteed by a decree from her father, so Ms Dos Santos’s bank cannot lose out.
Bravo da Rosa, the new chief executive of Sodiam, told Panorama that the Angolan people hadn’t got a single dollar back from the deal: “In the end, when we have finished paying back this loan, Sodiam will have lost more than $200 million.”
The former president also gave Ms Dos Santos’s husband the right to buy some of Angola’s raw diamonds.
The Angolan government says the diamonds were sold at a knockdown price and sources have told Panorama that almost $1 billion may have been lost.
Ms Dos Santos told the BBC she couldn’t comment because she was not a shareholder of De Grisogono.
But the leaked documents show she is described as a shareholder of De Grisogono by her own financial advisers. Dokolo did put in some money later. His lawyers say he invested $115 million and that the takeover of De Grisogono was his idea. They say his company paid above the market rate for the raw diamonds.
The land connection
The leaked documents also reveal how Ms Dos Santos bought land from the state in September 2017. Once again she only had to pay a small up-front fee.
Her company bought a square kilometre of prime beachfront land in the capital Luanda with the help of presidential decrees.
The contract says the land was worth $96 million, but the documents show her company paid only five per cent of that after agreeing to invest the rest in the development.
Panorama traced some of the ordinary Angolans who were evicted to make way for the Futungo development.
They’ve been moved from the Luandan seafront to an isolated housing development 50km from the capital.
Teresa Vissapa lost her business to Ms Dos Santos’ development and is now struggling to bring up her seven children.
She said: “I only ask God to make her think a little more about our situation. Maybe she doesn’t even know it, but we are suffering.”
Ms Dos Santos declined to comment on the Futungo development. But it was not the only land deal involving Ms Dos Santos that displaced the local population.
About 500 families were evicted from another stretch of the Luandan seafront after Isabel got involved in another major redevelopment project.
The telecoms connection
The billionaire has also made big profits from the telecoms industry in Angola. She acquired a 25 per cent stake in the country’s biggest mobile phone provider, Unitel.
It was granted a telecoms licence by her father in 1999 and she bought her stake the following year from a high ranking government official.
Unitel has already paid her $1 billion in dividends and her stake is worth another $1 billion. But that’s not the only way she got cash from the private company.
She arranged for Unitel to lend €350 million to a new company she set up, called Unitel International Holdings.
The company name was misleading because it wasn’t connected to Unitel and Ms Dos Santos was the owner.
The documents show Ms Dos Santos signed off on the loans as both lender and borrower, which is a blatant conflict of interest. She denied that the loans were corrupt.
“This loan had both directors’ approval and shareholders’ approval, and it’s a loan that will generate, and has generated, benefit for Unitel.”
Most of the companies involved in the dodgy deals were overseen by accountants working for the financial services company, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC).
It’s made millions providing auditing, consultancy and tax advice to her companies.
But PWC has terminated its relationship with the billionaire and her family, after Panorama questioned the way the company had assisted Ms Dos Santos in the deals that had made her rich.
PWC says it is holding an inquiry into the “very serious and concerning allegations”.
Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, told Panorama that PWC had given legitimacy to Ms Dos Santos and her companies.