Africa’s richest woman used to be nicknamed “the Princess” by poorer Angolans, says the Financial Times. But the past few months may have made a severe dent in her fortune. Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the country’s former president, José Eduardo dos Santos, was last month stripped of her job as head of Angola’s state oil group, Sonangol, by the new man in the presidential mansion, João Lourenço.
In September, Lourenço managed to shunt out dos Santos after 38 years in power. Isabel dos Santos’s recent defenestration is viewed as “a bold move to wrest power from the family of the country’s former leader”.
From Baku to King’s College
Lourenço has already replaced the heads of the central bank, Angola’s state-backed diamond company, and all three state-run media companies. But “this is the big one”, says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an Angola specialist at Oxford University – a sign that it’s no longer “just cosmetic changes”. As Africa’s largest oil producer, control of the energy industry has long been the primary source of wealth in Angola and this is “the first direct assault on the patronage of the dos Santos family”.
The fact that Lourenço was able to oust his rival’s daughter so swiftly “suggests the depth of the dissatisfaction with the old order”. In a country where many people struggle by on $2 a day, dos Santos’s swelling business fortune – estimated at $3.4bn by Forbes – has long been an open sore.
Dos Santos – who owns a stake in the Portuguese energy giant Galp Energia and has previously held investments in telecoms and banking – has always denied allegations of nepotism and corruption, saying she built her fortune herself. But Forbes magazine says its research found that her father “transferred stakes in several Angolan companies to her”. And via them, she got into Portugal.
Dos Santos got off to a singular start in life, says The Guardian. She was born in 1973 in Baku, Azerbaijan, then a Soviet outpost that welcomed promising young students from communist-aligned African liberation movements. Her father, one of them, met her mother, a Russian chess champion, while both were studying engineering. There were later rumours, dismissed by their daughter, that they were “introduced by the KGB”.
Dos Santos returned to Angola, took power in 1979, and fought a bloody civil war to retain it. His daughter, meanwhile, headed to London, attending St Paul’s School for Girls and then King’s College London, where she studied electrical engineering and business management.
Her first steps in business
Dos Santos likes to recall that her first business venture, selling chicken eggs aged six to fund her candyfloss habit, established her entrepreneurial credentials at a young age. But on returning to Angola, aged 24, her first businesses (a restaurant in Luanda called Miami Beach and a garbage-collection business) both flopped. Her later accretion of wealth inevitably looked suspicious to many Angolans, says the Financial Times, but “even some critics acknowledge Isabel dos Santos’s independent prowess as a business-woman”. She always describes her life as “ordinary” and “hints at a life dominated by hard work”.
Earlier this year, dos Santos attempted to distance her role at Sonangol from her father’s patronage, saying she wanted to push through a five-year turnaround plan. “I mean to keep [the job] to the end,” she told a conference. “But we live in a dynamic world.” Perhaps a little too dynamic for Angola’s “princess” these days.