Meet Africa’s only female billionaire

Isabel dos Santos

Isabel dos Santos

In December 2012, 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 beach-side 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 then, 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. Forbes has been tracing Isabel dos Santos’ path to riches, reviewing a score of documents and speaking with dozens of people on the ground.

It has been traced that 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.

“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 but issued this statement:

“Mrs Isabel dos Santos is an independent businesswoman, 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 accused an Angolan investigative journalist of being an activist with a political agenda.

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.

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 of six Isabel dos Santos was in Angola’s presidential palace, and while the family’s lifestyle wasn’t over-the-top, 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.

Over the past decade Angola has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. GDP grew at an 11,6 percent 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. — Forbes.

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