Africa’s Daughter, The Faux Princess and Her Enablers

This isn’t ‘just’ another story of corruption in a poor country, this is about failures by globally recognisable brands

This isn’t ‘just’ another story of corruption in a poor country, this is about failures of international rules by globally recognisable brands who ignored the obvious to enable tax avoidance, invoice fraud and money laundering through the creation of complex corporate structures and shell companies spanning the world’s best known tax havens.

The Faux Princess

‍Isabela dos Santos adapted to luxury and privilege at an early age and over the following decades the president’s daughter amassed a fortune most could never imagine. But this isn’t ‘just’ another story of corruption in a poor country, this is about failures of international rules by globally recognisable brands who ignored the obvious to enable tax avoidance, invoice fraud and money laundering through the creation of complex corporate structures and shell companies spanning the world’s best known tax havens. Isabela dos Santos may have taken advantage of her position but it was the firms charged with managing her vast wealth who enabled her activities to go unchecked until the Luanda leaks forced their hands and exposed their complicity.

Pocket Money For Cotton Candy

In the mid 1970’s Angola was torn apart by a vicious civil war. Angola was the hot bed of the cold war into the 1980’s and its civil war was to last 27 years. José Eduardo dos Santos was elected president three years after independence and the first family moved into the presidential palace on 20 September 1979. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was six. The presidential palace’s opulence paled in comparison to western seats of power or even comparable African dictators, but ‘there was decadence enough for Isabel to earn the nickname “the Princess.[1]” But it wasn’t necessarily luxury dos Santos was drawn to, it was commerce. In a recent article in Newswire[2] published in December last year, dos Santos recounts her passion for business, a passion that started at an early age, selling chicken eggs to earn pocket money for cotton candy. The title of ‘the Princes’ appears misplaced and distracts from her true calling; wealth accumulation.

Regardless, budding entrepreneur or daddy’s little princes, Angola was no place for a child and Isabel was sent to live with her mother in London where she would complete her A Levels at St. Pauls Girls School and later a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering[3]. Back home in Angola, a generation of children would lose their innocence, many given weapons and arms training to become child rebels, other children took up roles as spies, porters and workers. These were Angola’s darkest hours.

It was her time at Kings College in London that dos Santos said crystalized her thoughts on business, saying “I was very exposed obviously to the Western business environment, and I realized the potential that it had. The transforming of the economy was a lot bigger than we actually understood. So one of the things I tried to do when I came back to Angola was in fact to use what I had seen elsewhere in terms of business drive and initiative in the private sector[4].”

Recipes at the ‘Miami Beach’

Miami Beach Cafe

Isabel dos Santos completed her Electrical Engineering degree and returned to Angola where it appears she learned her recipe for success. ‘In 1997 the owner of a beachside bar and restaurant in Luanda named Miami Beach, Rui Barata, was having issues with health inspectors and taxmen. His solution: bringing in Isabel dos Santos, then 24, as his partner, with the idea, contemporaries say, that her name would keep pesky government regulators at bay. Her initial investment was negligible… and the restaurant thrived: …it’s still a weekend hot spot[5].’

The recipe for success it appears, was her family name keeping the regulators at bay. That recipe would be perfected in years to come to include a dash of presidential decrees, a splash of judiciary interference and later a large helping of access to the national treasury at a time when Angola was opening its economy to the world.‍

Histories Reflection

But time has a way of reshaping our view of the past to reflect an image we want to see.

‍In a recent interview with Newswire[6], Isabel talks about her venture into the telecommunication sector telling the readers her telco was formed because walkie-talkies were how people communicated in Angola. Isabel knew from her days in London when mobile phones were making their entrance into hands of the everyday person, the opportunity mobile phones could bring to communications across Africa and she went on to purchase T+ in Cape Verde. Isabel’s involvement in Unitel she says, “started because I used to do Motorola relay radio systems. We used to be a big provider of “walkie-talkie” radios. We migrated to building telecoms networks. There were a couple of networks that were designed by myself with a couple of other engineers: We designed the Luanda network, the Benguela network and the Huila network[7]”. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t hear of African business leaders or African entrepreneurs. The companies just didn’t exist, so when I started working in the private sector, I wanted to provide economic opportunities[8].”

Nagging Daddy for More Cotton Candy

In 1997 President Dos Santos issued a decree to open up the telecommunications sector proclaiming the government must open the sector to pubic bidding for all new licences[9]. Less than a year after the decree, the President controlled ‘Council of Ministers’ issued the first private telecommunications licence in the country to Unitel[10] with the state-owned oil company receiving a 25% stake and the president’s daughter Isabel with getting her very own 25% stake[11]. A year later Portugal Telecom paid $12.6 million for another 25% stake[12]. Of course dos Santos was right, mobile phones have since revolutionised both the way people communication, and how commerce is conducted across Africa. Unitel now has 9 million subscribers with revenue of $2 billion US dollars making it Angola’s largest private company[13].

The next Presidential push was for the state-owned diamond company Endiama to form a public private partnership to open the billion dollar a year diamond trade up to the world. In 1997, the Angolan Government formed a diamond selling partnership, retaining control with 51%. Three Israeli diamond merchants, including Lev Leviev and Russian arms dealer Arkady Gaydamak formed a new company called Ascorp[14] which would retain 24.5%. The other 24.5% was allocated to Isabel dos Santos, the President’s daughter, through a Gibraltar investment company, Trans Africa Investment Services[15].’

By 2005 dos Santos had a powerful network of extremely wealthy friends. Her next entrepreneurial venture was a banking partnership with Amorim and Fernando Teles. They created Banco Internacional de Credito (BIC)[16] with assets of $6.9 billion in 2012. Isabel dos Santos’ share was estimated to be worth at least $160 million[17],

Next came access to Angola’s lucrative oil sector with a new company, Amorim Energia. It was created using overly complex legal structures and tax havens that can only add a veil of secrecy. Amorim, dos Santos partner at Banco Internacional de Credito, set up the entity with a controlling stake. The remaining 45% was allocated to Sonangol via a Netherlands holding company Esperaza Holding B.V[18]. According to investigative not-for-profit Global Witness, 40% of Sonangol’s stake in Esperaza ended up with a Swiss company called Exem Holding[19]. Isabela’s husband, Sindika Dokolo, was put on the Amorim Energia board at the request of Esperaza and the chairman of Isabel dos Santos’ holding company is also on the boards of Fidequity, a subsidiary of Exem Holding, and entities called Exem Energy and Exem Oil & Gas. Last year Amorim Energia paid $726 million for an additional 5% of Galp. Isabel’s estimated 6.9% stake in Galp is worth a recent $924 million[20].

The IMF has stated at least $32 billion of oil revenue went missing from Angola’s federal oil ledger[21].”


Dos Santos firms including Victoria Holding, Victoria Limited, Finisantoro Holding, Kento Holding, Piccadilly Holdings, Soho Global Management Solutions, Wise Intelligence Solutions Holding, and Athol Limited[22] and span multiple jurisdictions including British Virgin Islands, Dubai, Mauritius, Hong Kong, Portugal and Malta. Compared to her financially successful stakes in Angolan banking, diamonds and telecoms, a number of these Maltese companies do not appear to be always profit-making. Most of them hold interests elsewhere: Kento, owned by Dos Santos and husband Sindika Dokolu, is the vehicle for her investment in telecommunications; Finisantoro holds her investment in Lisbon’s Banco BPI[23].

Isabel Dos Santos denies any wrong doing or illegal activities. A representative of Mrs. Dos Santos also told Forbes journalists Kerry Dolan and Marques de Morais, “that any allegations of illegal wealth transfers between her and the government are “groundless and completely absurd.” As the authors point out, “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[24].

Gaslighting Angola

At the time, in 2013, the country’s only newspaper the Journal de Angola gaslighted the entire nation, who on average earn less than $2 US dollars a day, by proclaiming they were elated with her success and that it fills Angolans with pride[25].

All Rise

José Eduardo dos Santo stepped down from the presidency in 2017, the presidency was transferred to Joao Lourenco and Isabel’s protection and power eroded at a frightening pace.

The new president of Angola, Joao Lourenco, fired the daughter of his predecessor as head of the country’s state oil company Sonangol in 2017 when he came to power[26] and in December last year, an Angolan court froze Dos Santos’s assets, accusing her of having benefited from preferential state deals under her father’s government[27]. Joao Lourenço’s has moved to mark his presidency as an anti-corruption government rushing in an end to decades of crony capitalism in the country[28].

‍Angola’s prosecutor general Mr Pitta Gros told a news conference last month “Isabel dos Santos is accused of mismanagement and embezzlement of funds during her tenure at Sonangol,”[29]. Mr Pitta Gros stated dos Santos is ‘being provisionally charged with “money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management…[and] forgery of documents, among other economic crimes[30]”.

‍Mr Pitta Gros said that if Ms Dos Santos does not return to Angola voluntarily, an international arrest warrant would be issued for her and the government would “all possible” means to have her brought back to face those charges[31]. Isabel dos Santos issued a statement saying “I have always operated within the law and all my commercial transactions have been approved by lawyers, banks, auditors and regulators,” she said[32].”

The Unravelling

‍Dos Santos also had her assets frozen in side BIC, in which she holds 25% through Sociedade de Participações Financeiras and 17.5%, through Finisantoro Holding Limited, a Maltese company[33]. Most of the Maltese companies are shell companies without employees bar financial advisors and lawyers[34]. Dos Santos Portuguese Bank, Banco Internacional de Credito (BIC)[35] board of Directors had also decided to “terminate the commercial relationship with entities controlled by Isabel dos Santos and people closely related to it”, adding it would investigate transfers worth tens of millions of dollars made by Ms dos Santos[36]. Ana Gomes, a former European Parliament member, filed a complaint in November in Portugal alleging that Ms. dos Santos laundered money through Banco BIC. Ms. Gomes said that the network of professional service firms had enabled Ms. dos Santos to move her money out of Angola and into legitimate businesses in Europe and elsewhere[37]. “They are part of a system of finding the safest landing for all the assets that are siphoned off,” she said[38].

In addition, Cape Verde’s finance minister has ordered an immediate investigation into how a bank owned by controversial billionaire Isabel dos Santos was granted a licence to operate in his island nation[39]. Ms dos Santos, then a “politically exposed person” (PEP) had bought into the bank in 2013, the same year Cape Verde’s regulators waived their ownership rules to grant it a banking licence[40]. The Luanda Leaks investigation reported on Finance Uncovered show pressure on Cape Verde regulators to waive those rules[41].

Cape Verde’s finance minister Mr Correia, said he was unable to find the appropriate documents to support the banking licence and his predecessor, Ms Duarte who approved the licence, appeared unwilling to discuss the licencing process when approached for information[42]. According to the UN website, Ms Duarte is currently on the advisory board to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs[43]. A report last year by the money laundering watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), found that Cape Verde’s banks still had “very little knowledge” of new beneficial ownership obligations. These are a central tenet of anti-money laundering regulations[44].‍

It appears wealth provided a cloak of respectability affording access and support others would not be provided but when the cloak lifted, it left people around the world scrambling to account for their actions in enabling these activities. One person cannot loot a nations resources without help and this story is about economic gatekeeps who enable tax avoidance, invoice fraud and money laundering through the creation of complex systems including corporate structures and shell companies spanning the world’s best known tax havens.

Her Enablers

“Domine, dirige nos”, the city of Londons’ motto: Master guide us.

Which master do these consultancy firms follow? The firms that assisted dos Santos with her wealth did not do this out of the goodness of their own hearts, they did this for profit. They did this at the expense of people living on less than $2 a day, people without access to hospitals and health care, without access to education. They hurt real people to whom running, clean water is a luxury for some. This isn’t a story of another corrupt African nation, this is truly a story of corrupt western business culture that unleashes the ‘greed is good’ mentality to accumulate at the expense of people whose daily life is filled with the struggle to survive.

The Luanda Leaks show that western firms earned millions through dos Santos’ offshore empire[45]

Some global banks including Citigroup and Deutsche Bank shied away from dealing with politically exposed persons and largely declined to work with the family in recent years[46]. Eduardo Sequeira, head of corporate finance for Fidequity, a Portuguese firm that manages many of Ms. dos Santos’s companies, wrote in a 2014 email after the Spanish bank Santander turned down work with her, “These guys hear about Isabel and they run like the Devil from the cross,”[47].

Many other firms including the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company and PwC, under less regulatory scrutiny, continued to earn millions of dollars in revenue assisting dos Santos, her firms and her family. Documents reviewed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists show how a global network of professional services helped her amass, protect and hide her fortune around the world[48]. These firms facilitated her efforts to profit from her country’s wealth while providing legitimacy to her assets[49].

“Without the assistance of these people, these corruption schemes and the money laundering that flows from that would be unable to happen.” Ben Cowduck, of the UK chapter of Transparency International, told ICIJ[50].

PwC, acted as her accountant, consultant and tax adviser, working with at least 20 companies controlled by her or her husband. The Luanda Leaks show PWC ignored obvious red flags of her Politically Exposed Persons status and use of Angolan state money[51]. In 2014, PwC in Malta had a problem. As they prepared annual financial statements for Victoria Limited, one of the Maltese companies that controlled De Grisogono, they wrote in a draft that the ultimate owners were Mr. Dokolo and the Angolan government. But Antonio Rodrigues, an executive at Fidequity, objected — the couple had been facing increasing media scrutiny after a 2013 Forbes article examined the origins of their wealth. Such information, he wrote, should not “be mentioned[52].” “Noted — we will discuss internally and revert,” a PwC accountant replied. The language was removed[53]. De Grisogono filed for filed for bankruptcy last week (Wednesday the 29th January 2020)[54].

Any experienced financial service provider or accountant knows the risk associated with the complexity of transactions involving shell companies, beneficial ownership across multiple jurisdiction and transactions of any significance involving a politically exposed person. It would be naïve to think an employee of one of these multinational firms did not understand or consider the firms actions would be stretching the legal parameters of its operations.

“It’s not exactly our finest hour,’’ Bob Moritz, Chairman of the PwC Network said at the Davos Summit following the release of the Luanda Leaks[55].

Ms. dos Santos is a Politically Exposed Person (PEP) and her partners tasked with assisting Ms. dos Santos with her businesses had the legal obligation within most jurisdictions, and at minimum the ethical obligation, to understand Ms. dos Santos’ source of funds.

It takes real coordination with strong relationships & networks to pull these feats off! There are two ways to be a part of the network.

Willingly or unwittingly.

It is important to know who you are doing business with. Investigations are unfolding and charges have only just been laid but by the looks of it Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company and Price Waterhouse Coopers were willing participants.

These are all recent and unfolding events. Time will tell if the walls will close in on those that have taken advantage of a continents rising opportunity or if they will walk away unharmed leaving a trail of destruction and despair.

But one thing is sure. Human kind has the ability to rationalise our bad behaviours and inflict such great harm. If your values project the idea of ‘do no harm’ then a culture of compliance will help build an acceptable framework for us to operate in without causing undue harm. Stepping outside this framework, as Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company and Price Waterhouse Coopers allegedly did, is a whole different ballgame.

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