Africa’s Richest Woman: Isabel Dos Santos fell from “grace to grass”

Once celebrated as the richest woman in Africa, Isabel Dos Santos had established her presence in many of Angola’s thriving sectors of the economy, owning stakes in major companies.

Her much-talked-about business prowess however turned out a mirage after investigations showed that her achievements were based on her proximity to the powers that be. The investigations claimed Dos Santos used her position to “engage in corruption by misappropriating public funds for her personal benefit”.

In 2013 Forbes described how Dos Santos acquired her wealth by taking stakes in companies doing business in Angola, suggesting that her wealth came almost entirely from her family’s power and connections.

The beginning…

Isabel Dos Santos was born on the 20th of April 1973 in Baku, Azerbaijan (then under the Soviet Socialist Republic) to Angola’s former President, José Eduardo Dos Santos. She attended an all-girls boarding school in Kent, Cobham Hall School, St Paul’s Girls’ School in London and Kings College London where she studied electrical engineering. dos santos

For more context on the progression of this article, it’s important to note that President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos was president of Angola from 1979 to 2017.


Isabel Dos Santos started her career in the 90s working as a project manager for Urbanas 2000 a company that won the contract to disinfect and clean cities in Angola. After that, she set up a tracking business, but details of how she started the trucking business or how she raised the capital for the business are not clearly stated.

When she was 24, in 1997, she joined a failing restaurant and nightclub named Miami Beach club as a partner and helped the restaurant grow and thrive with her influence.

In January 2013 she was declared the richest African billionaire with a net worth of $3 billion by Forbes. She was 40 at the time, making her the youngest female billionaire on the continent. Seven months after, a report was released by Forbes giving details on how her wealth was acquired after they investigated her source of wealth.

The article in one of its paragraphs stated “As best as we can trace, 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”.

Isabel Dos Santos gathered various stakes in strategic industries in Angola such as banking, cement, diamonds and telecommunications.

Her claim to wealth

Regarding her stake in the Telecommunication sector around 2000, her father had granted a company named Unitel the right to be the first private mobile telephone operator in the country with the condition that he had sole power to approve the project and to decide on the shareholding structure of the company since it involved state funds.

Isabel emerged with a 25% stake. It is alleged that she paid for her stake, but no documents were presented to confirm it. Because of the growth of the telecommunications sector and the fact that the company had no competition, by 2013 Unitel was worth $2 billion.

Then to the Banking sector. A bank named Banco Internacional de Credito, (BIC) was formed by Dos Santos in collaboration with Portuguese businessman, Americo Amorim and Fernando Teles, a Portuguese national who had been CEO of another Angolan bank.

Again, President Dos Santos influenced the deal. As head of the Council of Ministers, he formally authorized the foreign investment in the capital of the bank. The bank became even more successful when it was given a deal to lend money to the Angolan government. BIC made loans to the state worth $450 million, in addition to more than $350 million made to several private ventures. By 2012, BIC had assets of $6.9 billion. Her stake was worth $160 million.

In the Oil sector, a resource for which Angola is well known for, Isabel’s husband was on the board of Amorim Energia, a company formed by  Americo Amorim, Isabel’s banking partner. The company was a top oil firm in Angola. It acquired 33.3% of Galp Energia, Portugal’s former state-owned oil company, for roughly $1 billion. Isabel owned an estimated 6.9% stake in Galp which was worth  $924 million.

In the Diamond sector, president Dos Santos pushed for a diamond selling partnership in the country which ultimately led to the formation of a company called Ascorp in collaboration with Three Israeli diamond merchants. The diamond business yielded millions of dollars in dividends per month and the stake in the company shared thus; The three Diamond merchants including billionaire Leviev owned 24.5% of Ascorp, the government retained 51% and Isabel dos Santos, owned a  24.5% stake through an investment company, Trans Africa Investment Services.

She also had a $500 million stake in the Portuguese media firm, ZON.

How it all came crashing down

The Dos Santos’ empire began to unravel after her father retired. When Angola’s next president, João Lourenço,  took office in September 2017, he vowed to attack the corruption for which Angola had become well-known.

Two months into his tenure he dismissed Dos Santos as the head of state-owned oil firm, Sonangol, a position to which her father’s government had named her in June 2016.

In December 2019, as part of a corruption investigation, an Angolan court froze assets in the country that belonged to Dos Santos and her husband-including her stake in mobile telecom firm, Unitel and in several banks.

That same month, a flood of details about Dos Santos and her assets became public through the Luanda Leaks, a collection of more than 700,000 documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It confirmed the report Forbes did in 2013 about Dos Santos corruptly obtaining stakes in Angolan companies.

Authorities in Portugal also took steps to recover assets owned by Dos Santos. In July the government went to the extreme of nationalizing Efacec, an engineering firm majority-owned by Dos Santos, the company could no longer be privately owned. A Portuguese court froze her roughly $500 million holding in cable TV and broadband firm, Nos.

In total, her assets frozen in Angola were worth at least $300 million, while the assets frozen or nationalized by Portugal and the Netherlands together amounted to about $1.3 billion. She still possesses homes in London and in Dubai and a yacht worth about $35 million but then she was in debt to the tune of $430 million to Unitel.

What was her defence?

In her defence, she stated that she wasn’t guilty of any of the charges. In an interview with BBC News in 2020, she was asked several questions on behalf of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Dos Santos called the inquiry a “political persecution.”

In her own words “My holdings are commercial, there are no proceeds from contracts or public contracts, or money that has been deviated from public funds.”

Her husband (of blessed memory) also denied all the allegations in an interview with Radio France, Internationale, one of ICIJ’s partners in France, that the Angolan government is wrongfully targeting him and his wife.

“They want to blame us for all the corruption and bankruptcy in Angola. We pay taxes in Europe, and we’re Angola’s biggest tax contributor. We’ve worked and invested a lot in this country, more than many others,” he said.

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