JOHANNESBURG – Africa’s reputed richest woman is a formal suspect in an investigation into mismanagement and the siphoning off of funds during her time with Angola’s state-run oil company, the country’s attorney general announced Wednesday.
The remarks by Helder Pitta Gros to reporters in the capital, Luanda, come days after a global investigation accused billionaire Isabel dos Santos of murky dealings in the oil- and diamond-rich nation, whose people remain some of the poorest on Earth.
Wednesday’s announcement is the latest sign that Angola’s government under President Joao Lourenco is determined to pursue accountability after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists accused dos Santos of using “unscrupulous deals” to build her fortune, estimated at $2 billion.
Dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former president, has denied any wrongdoing.
Angolan authorities this week said they are reaching out to other countries for help in tackling the corruption, which critics say has robbed millions of citizens of basic needs like quality health care.
And businesses are cutting ties. Portuguese bank EuroBic this week said it will stop doing business with companies and people linked to dos Santos, its main shareholder. On Wednesday, the bank said she had decided to sell her stake in the institution.
The allegations in the investigation were based on more than 715,000 confidential financial and business records provided by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, an advocacy group based in Paris, as well as hundreds of interviews. The cache of documents is known as Luanda Leaks.
Isabel’s father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, ruled Angola for 38 years until 2017. Human rights groups have long accused him of stealing vast amounts of state money during his rule. Before stepping down, he appointed his daughter head of the state oil company, Sonangol.
Last December, a Luanda court froze her major assets, which include banks and a telecom company. The government says it is trying to recover $1.1 billion it says the country is owed by dos Santos, her husband and a close associate of the couple.
Dos Santos has said the legal action against her is a “witch hunt” launched by officials who replaced her father.
Some Angolans want dos Santos to face justice in a country reeling from the cronyism and iron-fisted rule of her father. But others suspect a political smokescreen. The focus on the highly prominent dos Santos family, they say, means other elites who benefited under her father can go untouched.
Behind the shiny nightclubs and palm trees lining the beach in the seaside capital, ordinary citizens struggle to make ends meet in a country that is a member of the OPEC oil cartel. Nearly a third of the population in sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy live in poverty.
The opposition has voiced skepticism about Lourenco’s declared intentions for going after graft and the focus on dos Santos.
The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola is to hold internal leadership elections next year — a test for Lourenco ahead of presidential polls in 2022.
Dos Santos told Portuguese media last week that she would consider running for the top job.
“I think we are all being destroyed by Isabel,” said David Mendes, a member of the main opposition party UNITA. “As we have more important issues such as hunger, lack of jobs … that (the government) cannot solve, they create distraction.”
Political activist Jereminas Dito Dali said it was “strange” the Luanda Leaks did not probe other high-profile figures suspected of graft. He singled out ex-Vice President Manuel Vincente, who escaped a corruption trial in Portugal after Lourenco pushed to transfer his case to Angola.
Vincente is now a deputy of the MPLA, which has ruled the country since independence in 1975.
“I am not one of those who believes that there is selective persecution,” said Angolan journalist Carlos Rosado, who took part in the ICIJ investigation.
“We had to start somewhere,” he explained. “Now the judicial authorities must extend the scope of investigations to other sectors.”
The leaks should be an “opportunity” for the government to fight impunity across the board, said Rosado.
“You cannot stop here … in the dos Santos family,” he said. “Corruption in Angola is a widespread thing.”