Isabel dos Santos ordered to return to Angola $500 million in shares ‘tainted by illegality’

An inter­na­tion­al tri­bunal ruled that the bil­lion­aire and her late hus­band cor­rupt­ly obtained a lucra­tive stake from the state oil com­pa­ny Sonangol.

Isabel dos Santos and Sindika Dokolo at a gala in France in 2015.

Isabel dos Santos, at one time the wealth­i­est woman in Africa, must sur­ren­der one of her last remain­ing major assets, a stake in the Portuguese ener­gy com­pa­ny Galp worth an esti­mat­ed $500 mil­lion, an inter­na­tion­al tri­bunal in the Netherlands has ruled.

In its 2020 Luanda Leaks inves­ti­ga­tion, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed that dos Santos and her hus­band Sindika Dokolo had obtained the stake for just a $15 mil­lion ini­tial deposit, in a con­tro­ver­sial deal made with Angola’s state oil com­pa­ny — over­seen at the time by dos Santos’ father, Angola’s then-pres­i­dent Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

The deal “can­not be explained but for grand cor­rup­tion by the daugh­ter of a head of state and her hus­band,” the tri­bunal ruled, declar­ing it “null and void.” The rul­ing, made pub­lic last week, was first report­ed by Dutch news­pa­per and ICIJ part­ner, Het Financieele Dagblad.

Luanda Leaks report­ing showed how insid­er deals, polit­i­cal con­nec­tions and an army of Western enablers helped dos Santos amass a for­tune. The exposé revealed how the bil­lion­aire and her allies ben­e­fit­ed from lucra­tive deals in dia­monds, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, bank­ing and real estate.

The inves­ti­ga­tion had a pro­found impact on the dos Santos fam­i­ly. Angolan and Portuguese author­i­ties froze dos Santos’ assets and bank accounts and launched crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions. The busi­ness empire was large­ly dismantled.

The inside deal­mak­ing that led to the acqui­si­tion of the Galp shares, revealed in part through leaked doc­u­ments, was fea­tured in the Luanda Leaks reporting.

In 2006, Angola’s state oil com­pa­ny, Sonangol, sold 40% of its inter­est in joint ven­ture com­pa­ny Esperaza to Exem Energy, a Dutch firm owned by Dokolo. Sonangol then sold to Dokolo’s com­pa­ny a $99 mil­lion stake for an ini­tial $15 mil­lion deposit. That same stake is now worth more than $500 million.

The deal was “taint­ed by ille­gal­i­ty, enabling Ms dos Santos direct­ly or through her hus­band Mr. Dokolo, while using her posi­tion as daugh­ter of the Angolan President … to reap an extra­or­di­nary finan­cial gain to the detri­ment of … Angola,” accord­ing to the ruling.

This is a land­mark deci­sion,” Yas Banifatemi, one of Sonangol’s attor­neys told ICIJ. “It is not some­thing you see often that a tri­bunal like this rec­og­nizes embez­zle­ment and cor­rup­tion. They called a spade a spade.”

Banifatemi said that the Luanda Leaks inves­ti­ga­tion was crit­i­cal to the case, mak­ing crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion pub­lic. “I’m thank­ful for the Luanda Leaks,” Banifatemi said. “It allowed us to fight corruption.”

In a state­ment, Exem Energy’s London rep­re­sen­ta­tives said that the com­pa­ny will appeal. Its attor­ney, Dan Morrison, not­ed that the pan­el is not a court and said that it failed to com­ment on Exem Energy’s evi­dence. “The polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive clear­ly super­seded the legal analy­sis,” Morrison said.

In sep­a­rate cas­es relat­ed to the trans­ac­tion, a Dutch court froze Exem Energy’s assets last year and removed a key dos Santos ally from the board of the joint ven­ture com­pa­ny. Dutch pros­e­cu­tors also launched a crim­i­nal probe into the deal. Dos Santos is also fac­ing crim­i­nal charges in Angola.

Dos Santos denies wrong­do­ing and has pre­vi­ous­ly claimed that legal actions against her amount to a “witch hunt.” Dokolo also denied wrong­do­ing. He died in a scu­ba div­ing acci­dent last year.

ICIJ by Will Fitzgibbon

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