Funnily, Angola’s Isabel dos Santos gives hope for 2024

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 22, 2023
Isabel dos Santos in happier times. Photo by Nuno Coimbra – own work. CC BY-SA 4.0

The ongoing saga of Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s first female billionaire, took me right back to January 2017.

That was the month Ms dos Santos took over the largest bank in Angola, Banco de Fomento Angola. The elevation occurred in no small part because her daddy was president of the country and had been so since the late 1970s. Ms dos Santos’s rise seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with Angola and many other countries in Africa and Asia. It also seemed as if that narrative of privilege and power would run and run.

Except that it did not. Ms dos Santos has just lost her fight in a London court against the freezing of her billions in assets. She has always denied allegations of corruption and claimed to be the victim of a political vendetta.

That said, the dos Santos family story has always seemed a stereotype, a cliché for all that is said (and sadly, sometimes real) about countries in Africa.

A strong man seizes control of a resource-rich country within a few years of independence from their European colonial master and a kleptocracy rules for the next half-century, while the common man starves and dreams and has their hopes crushed beneath the weight of woe.

So it was in Angola, of which Jose Eduardo dos Santos took charge within a few years of independence from Portugal. He died in autumn 2022, five years after doing a rare and foolhardy thing for a dictator – stepping aside.

The late president’s favourite daughter was Isabel, who became immensely rich and powerful in the family’s glory years, especially during the Angolan oil boom of the early noughts. Ms dos Santos headed the national bank and the national oil company and had a controlling stake in Angola’s largest phone operator. At one point, Forbes estimated she was worth $3.2 billion.

All of that has since gone, a reminder perhaps of how the mighty may fall. It’s a story that gives hope – for 2024.

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