Luanda – Allegations of corruption swirling around his predecessor’s daughter have set a crucial test for Angolan President Joao Lourenco in his vow to reform a country rich in oil and tainted by graft.
Isabel dos Santos, the 46-year-old billionaire daughter of ex-president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is being probed for allegedly siphoning off millions from state companies and stashing the funds overseas.
Analysts say the mounting scandal raises the stakes — not just for the dos Santos family and elites who prospered during the ex-president’s 38-year rule, but also for Lourenco himself.
“A lot rests on this case,” said Berlin-based Transparency International’s southern Africa advisor, Mokgabo Kupe.
Dos Santos “is a symbol of the fight against corruption,” said Oxford University fellow and Angolan law professor Rui Verde.
“If (she) is charged, of course, everyone could be charged.”
Dos Santos was indicted this week for a host of top-level financial crimes, including money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management and forgery of documents.
On Friday, Angolan Chief Prosecutor Helder Pitta Gros said funds that she invested in Portugal, the former colonial power, were transferred “by illicit means.”
Lourenco’s adminstration is now looking into ways to bring her back home to face justice.
But how it intends to do that is unclear.
Dos Santos has been living in Europe since Lourenco fired her as head of the state oil company Sonangol in 2017, soon after he took over from her father.
The powerful businesswoman strongly denies the allegations, which she characterises as a witch hunt, and says her wealth is legitimate and earned the hard way.
On Thursday she vowed she was “ready to fight through the international courts to defend my good name” — an indication she would fight attempts to bring her to face trial.
– Anger at corruption –
To many in Angola, Isabel dos Santos became an emblem of the nepotism, cronyism and dissipated resources in her father’s decades in office.
She earned the nickname of “The Princess” for her wealth and lifestyle. Forbes magazine estimates her wealth at $2.3 billion.
Most of the country’s 30 million people are mired in poverty, failing wretchedly to benefit from the flood of dollars from crude oil and diamonds.
Angola is ranked at 146 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
Today Lourenco’s government is under mounting pressure to attract foreign investment, and for this it needs to be seen as having well-functioning and corruption-free institutions.
– Risk for Lourenco –
But commentators say that if Lourenco wobbles and fails to secure a conviction against dos Santos, that could weaken his much-touted anti-corruption campaign.
Another closely-scrutinised question is how far the campaign will reach.
Isabel’s brother Filomeno dos Santos, who was the head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, is currently on trial in Angola for corruption.
“Politically a lot rests on how well the Mr Lourenco is able to maintain the anti-graft campaign and ensure there is no impunity,” said Transparency International’s Kupe.
“There are suspicions already that the anti-graft campaign is cosmetic. Some detractors feel nothing will come of the cases because of inherent cronyism in the state, whilst others feel the cases are essentially a vendetta against the dos Santos family.”
Alex Vines of the Chatham House think-tank agreed.
“There is a danger that this reform process is selective, just targeting family and friends of the dos Santos, (when) clearly there are people in the orbit of Lourenco that also require judicial scrutiny,” he said.
So far, Lourenco has the backing of local anti-corruption activists.
“It’s a genuine drive to reclaim the country… because the state was privatised by the dos Santos family and a few cronies,” said fierce dos Santos critic and activist Rafael Marques.
He said there were “active members of the government currently sabotaging Lourenco’s anti-corruption agenda… What we have is not a regime change, it’s president change — the government is the same as 45 years ago”.
The opposition concurs.
“The (ruling) MPLA is the main and ultimate culprit for the current state of corruption in our country,” said Liberty Chiyaka, leader of the opposition UNITA party.