Corruption probe freezes assets of Angola billionaire who uses Malta to run empire

Bank accounts and assets of Isabel Dos Santos, once considered to be Africa’s richest woman, frozen in corruption probe

Isabel dos Santos
Isabel dos Santos

An Angolan court has ordered the seizure of the assets and bank accounts of Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire daughter of ex-President José Eduardo dos Santos.

The seizure appears to be part of an anti-corruption drive by the current government in oil-rich Angola.

Billionaire Isabel dos Santos, 46, has an important Malta connection, because the island hosts companies which are partly owned by the Angolan state and Dos Santos, a fact that opens her up to accusations of having built her wealth on the back of the resource-rich African state.

READ Africa’s top billionaire uses Malta shell companies to hold diamonds ‘conflict’

The administration of President Joao Lourenço is seeking to recover $1bn (€890m) it says it is owed by Isabel dos Santos and her associates. She has repeatedly denied wrongdoing during her father’s term in office.

Often described as Africa’s richest woman, in 2015 dos Santos acquired a 65% stake in Portugal’s Efacec Power Solutions in a deal worth over €194 million. She used a Maltese company, Winterfell Industries, to carry out the deal.

According to Portuguese business newspaper Económico, it was José Eduardo dos Santos who only last August signed a state order approving that Angolan state energy company ENDE acquires 40% of Winterfell Industries. The other 60% owner of Winterfell is Isabel dos Santos’s own company, Niara Holding. That made the state of Angola a 26% owner of Efacec, through the acquisition of the Angolan dictator’s daughter’s Malta firm.

The other directors of Winterfell are Noel Buttigieg Scicluna, the former Nationalist MP who is also a director on several other Santos firms, such as Victoria Holding.

Victoria Holding is owned jointly by Angola’s state diamond marketing company Sodiam, and husband dos Santos’s husband Sindika Dokolu.

 

The court order also applies to dos Santos’s husband, Sindika Dokolo, and Mario da Silva. The Attorney General sought the order, saying the three had engaged in transactions with state-owned companies that led to Angola’s government incurring losses of $1.14 billion, according to the reports.

Valued at $2.2 billion by Forbes, African ‘princess’ dos Santos is a major force in industries such as diamonds, banking and telecommunications, usually with stakes in her own country’s state corporations. Like her father José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled Angola for 35 years, she often stands accused of enriching the dos Santos dynasty at the expense of the nation.

Dos Santos gained a high public profile in 2016, when her father controversially appointed her as the head of Angola's state-owned oil firm Sonangol. But she was sacked from the post in 2017 by her father’s handpicked successor, Joao Lourenço, who to the surprise of many turned against the family, promising a major crackdown on corruption.

In a statement, she said she condemned what she described as a “politically motivated attack” against her.

“I discovered that a trial had been held in total secrecy in Angola and the decision taken to issue a freezing order on my assets. There were no lawyers from my side present, nor the directors of my companies. We were only informed about it after the decision had been taken behind our backs. I have spent the last 24 hours trying to give assurances to my staff and all the families affected by this order that we must not give in. I will use all the instruments of Angolan and international law at my disposal to fight this order and ensure the truth comes out.”

Other Malta companies

Buttigieg Scicluna has been listed as a director on several other related firms: Victoria Holding, Victoria Limited, Finisantoro Holding, Kento Holding, Piccadilly Holdings, Soho Global Management Solutions, Wise Intelligence Solutions Holding, and Athol Limited. Compared to her financially successful stakes in Angolan banking, diamonds and telecoms, a number of these Maltese companies do not appear to be always profit-making. Most of them hold interests elsewhere: Kento, owned by Dos Santos and husband Sindika Dokolu, is the vehicle for her investment in telecommunications; Finisantoro holds her investment in Lisbon’s Banco BPI.

According to the court order, dos Santos used both national diamond agency Sodiam and her own company Exem Mining BV, to acquire the Swiss company De Grisogono, through a Malta firm, Victoria Holding. In this deal, Sodiam invested $146 million through a loan from BIC bank, under the sovereign guarantee of the Angolan state, which continues to repay the debt “without having received any profit to date. date”.

Dos Santos also had her assets frozen in side BIC, in which she holds 25% through Sociedade de Participações Financeiras and 17.5%, through Finisantoro Holding Limited, a Maltese company.

To critics of Dos Santos, such as human rights activist and journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, who spent 25 years tracking down the origins of her fortune, it is clear that the family business has a stake in government companies. “The proven partnership between Isabel dos Santos, Sindika Dokolo and Sodiam amounts to a flagrant case of conflict of interest,” writes De Morais, who faces nine separate defamation trials in Angola for his revelations on blood diamonds,” he had told MaltaToday in 2015.

“The partnership between Sodiam and Isabel dos Santos is illegal under the Angolan legislation, because her father, the President of the Republic, appoints the board of Sodiam and, as head of the executive, is entitled to give them instructions. As such, the law forbids him from using his position for the enrichment of his family.

“This is the reason why, such a partnership is not recognized in Angola, and does not appear in the books of Sodiam, but in Malta only. In the near future, the president might be prosecuted for this case, for corruption and diversion of state resources, such as diamonds, for the illicit enrichment of his family. The family can no longer hide the ill-gotten riches through shell companies based in Malta. They have been outed now.”

In the past, Buttigieg Scicluna has defended Malta’s generous tax planning structures, which allows foreign shareholders like dos Santos to minimise their ‘tax exposure’ by remitting profits to tax-resident companies here. “This is the hallmark of Malta as a jurisdiction. The companies pay the taxes they are obliged to pay and file their financial statements that are also professionally audited, all as required by law… All this is in line with the vision that the country’s strategic leaders had when launching Malta as an international financial services centre.”

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