Uncertain future for dos Santos business empire: Isabel dos Santos rose to become Africa's richest woman under her father's rule, but the current Angolan government's pursuit of criminal claims against her poses a threat to her assets in the country.

Author:Kedem, Shoshana
 
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In 2001, as Angola's murderous civil war boiled towards its close, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos awarded a telecoms licence for the country's second mobile operator to a consortium of three companies without a public tender. Among them was the state oil firm, Sonangol, and another company partly owned by his daughter Isabel dos Santos.

The acquisition formed an early block in a business empire spanning telecoms, oil, property and other sectors in Angola and Portugal that dos Santos has built with her Congolese husband, Sindika Dokolo. Widely regarded as Africa's richest woman, she was estimated to be worth $2.2bn by Forbes magazine. Under the rule of her father her rise seemed unstoppable, and in 2016 she was appointed chairwoman of Angola's state owned oil company Sonangol.

However, since the retirement of her father in 2017, dos Santos' fortunes have deteriorated considerably as the new government of Joao Lourenco pursues a decisive break with the past. Shortly after Lourenco's succession, dos Santos was sacked as chairwoman of Sonangol. In December, the Angolan authorities froze her assets in the country in connection with its claim that she and her husband had steered state assets worth $1bn into companies that they owned or had a stake in. On 22 January, the country's attorney general provisionally charged her with embezzlement and money laundering during her time at Sonangol.

Only a few days before, some of the world's leading media outlets, including the BBC, the Guardian of London and the New York Times, had reported allegations that dos Santos had moved hundreds of millions of dollars of public money into a labyrinth of 400 companies and subsidiaries, many of them in offshore jurisdictions around the world. The allegations were based on a cache of 715,000 leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), known as the Luanda Leaks.

Isabel dos Santos has denied all wrongdoing and accuses the Angolan government of a witch-hunt. But as the Angolan authorities conduct a criminal investigation to decide whether she should be formally charged, the future of her business empire is in doubt.

Her assets, bank accounts and companies in the Southern African petro-state are vulnerable to acquisition by the Angolan authorities, says Gongalo Falcao, who heads the Angola practice of US law firm Mayer Brown.

"Most of her companies are profitable and solid, and they are very important in the markets...

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