January 20, 2020 / 5:45 PM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Africa’s richest woman is Angola’s trickiest issue

Isabel Dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former President and Africa's richest woman, sits for a portrait during a Reuters interview in London, Britain, January 9, 2020. Picture taken on January 9.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - João Lourenço’s tricky standoff with Africa’s richest woman just went global. Leaked documents on Sunday brought international scrutiny to the $2 billion business empire of Isabel dos Santos, daughter of former leader José Eduardo dos Santos. But the current Angolan president doesn’t necessarily have a free hand to press home his advantage.  

Since taking over in 2017 from dos Santos senior, who ran Africa’s number two oil producer as his personal fiefdom for 38 years, Lourenço has focused on stamping out graft. Given their wealth, dos Santos’s offspring appeared high on his list. In December, Isabel dos Santos’s half-brother José Filomeno, who ran Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, was arrested over a $500 million transfer to Credit Suisse in London. On Dec. 31, domestic courts froze her local bank accounts.

However much Lourenço may like to do so, bringing the UK-educated businesswoman to book may be messy. While publication of the so-called “Luanda Leaks” has placed her on the back foot and put paid to a planned appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it’s not yet a knockout blow. Dos Santos has dismissed the accusations of embezzlement as a political witch-hunt by a leader nervous about ruling party elections next year.

Either way, Lourenço is hampered by his own domestic court system. Five years ago, Angola had only 300 judges for a nation of nearly 30 million, and is 111th out of 126 countries ranked by the World Justice Project. The case against her will not be as simple as opening a bullion-stuffed vault in the Swiss Alps. Her business empire, known for years, stretches from Angola to Europe and spans telecommunications, banking, media, real estate, diamonds and retail. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it is held together via a complex web of 400 companies, many of them offshore. Dos Santos spends much of her time in London.

Lourenço could act the strongman and simply seize her Angolan assets. But without a firm legal ruling behind him, this could be seen as an assault on private investment. Dos Santos’s long involvement in companies like Unitel, the mobile operator in which she retains a 25% stake, means Angolans might fear they will perform weaker without her there, undermining the domestic economy. The country remains desperately short of experienced business leaders. Despite all the heat and light, that points to a negotiated climb-down by both sides.

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