How Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, went broke

Abu Mubarik August 03, 2021
Isabel dos Santos, here in Porto on 5 March 2015. Photo: Paulo Duarte/AP/SIPA

Isabel dos Santos was eight years ago declared by Forbes as the richest woman in Africa. Her net worth was estimated at $3.5 billion. During the period she accumulated much of her wealth, her father was Angola’s longtime former president.

With her dad out of the presidency, Isabel’s empire, which ranges from oil business to telecommunication, is now a shadow of what it used to be. Her business empire started crumbling when corruption charges were leveled against her by the new Angolan government.

Also, her assets have been frozen in three different countries, and there is a lawsuit against her in another fourth country claiming hundreds of millions in unpaid debt. As a result, she fell below the billionaire status per Forbes’ reporting.

She had previously featured in the Forbes 2020 list of billionaires from Africa. However, the 2021 publication did not feature her because she fell below the $1 billion benchmarks per the calculation of her wealth.

Forbes calculated her wealth by assuming she has no access and likely little chance to gain back control of the frozen assets—together worth about $1.6 billion if not frozen. Before the latest publication, her estimated worth was $2.2 billion.

According to Forbes, Angola’s new president, João Lourenço, who took office in September 2017, vowed to crack down on corruption. He dismissed Isabel from her position as the country’s head of state oil firm Sonangol. She was first appointed into the position in 2016 by her retired father.

In 2019, the Angolan government expanded its investigation into Isabel’s business dealings and froze assets belonging to her and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, in the country. Some of the assets included a stake in mobile telecom firm Unitel and several banks.

Angola’s attorney general in 2020 formally charged Isabel and Dokolo with embezzlement and money laundering. Also, authorities in Portugal have taken steps to recover assets owned by Isabel, according to Forbes.

“In July the government went to the extreme of nationalizing Efacec, an engineering firm majority-owned by Dos Santos, reportedly out of concern for the company’s survival. In April, a Portuguese court froze her roughly $500 million holdings in cable TV and broadband firm Nos,” Forbes reported.

“Her investment in Nos shows just how welcomed Dos Santos was by Portugal’s business elite: she held the shares through ZOPT, a partnership with the family of Belmiro de Azevedo, a respected Portuguese billionaire who died in 2017. The shareholders of ZOPT are in the process of dissolving the partnership, according to a spokesperson for Nos,” according to Forbes.

Isabel is also a subject of investigation in the United Kingdom. She was sued by the Angolan mobile phone provider, Unitel, where she owns 25% shares last year. The company claims that Dutch company, Unitel International Holdings BV, had defaulted in 2019 on multiple loans issued by the telecom firm Unitel beginning in 2012. The company is seeking repayment of $430 million, Forbes reported.

According to Forbes, Isabel’s assets frozen in Angola are worth at least $300 million. Also, her assets frozen or nationalized by Portugal and the Netherlands together would currently amount to about $1.3 billion.

It is uncertain if she is likely to get those assets back, Forbes said.

Despite the collapse of her businesses, Isabel is by no means poor. Her homes, yacht, cash, and other assets are estimated at $400 million.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 3, 2021


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