This story appears in the September 2, 2013 issue of Forbes.
Isabel dos Santos of Angola, Africa’s Richest Woman
By Kerry A. Dolan and Rafael Marques de Morais
LAST DECEMBER Isabel dos Santos commemorated her tenth wedding anniversary to Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo with a party. Subtlety wasn’t on the menu. She jetted in dozens of friends and relatives from as far as Germany and Brazil, who joined with hundreds of local guests in Angola for three days of lavishness, including a bash at the Fortress of Sao Miguel in the capital city of Luanda and a beachside Sunday brunch on the posh Mussulo peninsula. The invitation, according to one attendee, came in a sleek white box, promising a celebration of “a decade of passion/ a decade of friendship/ a decade worth a hundred years. …”
A decade worth $3 billion is more like it. At 40 Dos Santos is Africa’s only female billionaire, and also the continent’s youngest. She has quickly and systematically garnered significant stakes in Angola’s strategic industries–banking, cement, diamonds and telecom–making her the most influential businessperson in her homeland. More than half of her assets are held in publicly traded Portuguese companies, adding international credibility. When FORBES outed her as a billionaire in January the government disseminated the news as a matter of national pride, living proof that this country of 19 million has arrived.
The real story, however, is how Dos Santos–the oldest daughter of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos–acquired her wealth. For the past year FORBES has been tracing Isabel dos Santos’ path to riches, reviewing a score of documents and speaking with dozens of people on the ground. 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. If the 71-year-old president gets overthrown, he can reclaim the assets from his daughter. If he dies in power, she keeps the loot in the family. Isabel may decide, if she is generous, to share some of it with her seven known half-siblings. Or not. The siblings are known around Angola for despising one another.
“It is not possible to justify this wealth, which is shamelessly displayed,” former Angolan prime minister Marcolino Moco tells FORBES. “There is no doubt that it was the father who generated such a fortune.”
Isabel dos Santos declined to speak with FORBES for this article. Her representatives failed to respond to detailed questions sent months ago but last week issued this statement: “Mrs. Isabel dos Santos is an independent business woman, and a private investor representing solely her own interests. Her investments in Angolan and/or in Portuguese companies are transparent and have been conducted through arms-length transactions involving external entities such as reputed banks and law firms.” In turn, the spokesman accuses this article’s coauthor, an Angolan investigative journalist, of being an activist with a political agenda. The Angolan government jailed Marques de Morais in 1999 over a series of articles critical of the regime and has brought new criminal defamation charges against him over his 2011 book, Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola .
Finally, a representative of Mrs. Dos Santos said that any allegations of illegal wealth transfers between her and the government are “groundless and completely absurd.” That could well be. When your father runs the show, and can dictate which national assets are sold and at what price, what’s theft of public resources in one country can be rendered legal with a swipe of the pen.
President José Eduardo dos Santos could not be reached for comment. That is unfortunate, because the Dos Santoses, as Moco notes, have “some explaining to do.”
FOR THREE CENTURIES the Portuguese extracted wealth from this mineral-rich country on Africa’s southwestern coast. Almost immediately after Angola won independence in 1975, various internal factions began battling one another for the right to do the exact same thing. From this chaos, which lasted 27 years, Dos Santos, who had studied oil engineering in Soviet Azerbaijan and served as foreign minister upon independence, eventually emerged as president in 1979. He’s held on to power ever since, making him the planet’s third-longest-serving nonroyal head of state.
The president met his first wife (he’s been married at least twice), Tatiana Kukanova, while a student in Azerbaijan, and his first child–Isabel–was born there. By age 6 Isabel dos Santos was in Angola’s presidential palace, and while the family’s lifestyle wasn’t over-the-top by profligate African dictator standards (save the president’s dalliances–at least five of his children are from various mistresses), the family had Christmas trees flown in from New York and $500,000 worth of bubbly imported from a Lisbon restaurateur. There was decadence enough for Isabel to earn the nickname “the Princess.”
During Isabel’s upbringing the Angola economy sputtered, crippled by two factors: ongoing civil war and Dos Santos’ socialist policies. “In the 1980s you’d go to the supermarket and there would only be noodles on the shelves. There wasn’t much there,” says University of Southern California associate professor emeritus Gerald Bender, who’s been studying Angola since 1968. For cloistered Isabel that reality was likely invisible; she eventually attended King’s College in London, where her mother, now a British citizen, lives, and earned an undergraduate degree in engineering.
However, as civil war resumed by the end of 1992, Isabel left for Angola’s capital city, Luanda, in a rush, allegedly after receiving death threats in London.
By the late 1990s, when the civil war was winding down –a ceasefire was formally declared in 2002–President Dos Santos, like the Soviets he had studied under in the 1960s, was embracing a grab-what-you-can form of capitalism. Over the past decade Angola has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. GDP grew at an 11.6% annual clip from 2002 to 2011, driven by a more than doubling of oil production to 1.8 million barrels a day. The government budget sits at $69 billion, up from $6.3 billion a decade ago.
But predictably, precious little of the windfall has made it to the people. Some 70% of Angolans live on less than $2 a day. And by the government’s own count, 10% of the country’s population is scrambling for food due to drought and bureaucratic neglect. So where’s the money going? Start with a paranoid president-for-life. The state security apparatus sucks more funds from the budget than health care, education and agriculture combined. A lot is clearly stolen: Between 2007 and 2010 at least $32 billion of oil revenue went missing from the federal ledger, according to the International Monetary Fund, which later tracked most of the money to “quasi-fiscal operations.” Angola comes in at 157 out of 176 nations ranked by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It trails shining stalwarts of participatory democracy such as Yemen and Kyrgyzstan. And it’s within this environment that Isabel dos Santos has surfaced with an estimated net worth of $3 billion.