The wealthiest woman in Africa — and Russia Isabel dos Santos’s Russian roots could help her avoid extradition on corruption charges, but they won’t help her political ambitions in Angola
Africa’s wealthiest woman, Isabel dos Santos, has been found to be a Russian citizen. In Angola, she stands accused of using more than a billion dollars from state corporations to enrich herself and of attempting to transfer more than 10 million euros to Russia. Her assets in Angola have been frozen since the end of last year, but the entrepreneur herself left the country three years ago. Now, she has claimed that the case against her is politically motivated and floated a potential run for president during Angola’s 2022 elections.
The daughter of Angola’s former president is a Russian citizen, making her the richest woman in both Russia and Africa
46-year-old Isabel dos Santos is the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, who was the president of Angola for 38 years. After her father left the president’s post in 2017, Isabel dos Santos left her home country for Dubai. She is a shareholder in a number of Angolan and Portuguese companies, including banks, the Angolan mobile operator Unitel, and the Portuguese oil company Galp. Forbes estimates her net worth at $2.1 billion.
Media sources began reporting that dos Santos had become a Russian citizen earlier this month: The Portuguese outlet Expresso discovered that the entrepreneur’s attorney had made changes to her shareholder data in two Maltese companies’ records in October and November 2019. Both companies are affiliated with dos Santos and her husband. The changes stemmed from the couple’s new home address in Dubai and Isabel’s status as a Russian citizen.
On January 9, dos Santos told a correspondent for the Russian news outlet TASS that she had not been naturalized, nor had she renewed a previously defunct claim to Russian citizenship. She had simply been “a Russian citizen from birth,” she said. The next day, a security source confirmed to RIA Novosti that dos Santos had said she has always been a Russian citizen.
After dos Santos’s Russian citizenship came to light, it became clear that she is the wealthiest woman not only in Africa but in Russia as well. Yelena Baturina, who topped Forbes’s women’s list for Russia in 2019, has an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion.
Isabel dos Santos was born in Azerbaijan
The eldest daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos was born in Baku in 1973. Her future parents had traveled there to study, her father from Angola and her mother, Tatiana Kukanova, from Penza, Russia. The couple soon moved to Angola, and by the age of six, Isabel was living in the presidential palace, where she earned the nickname Princess.
“If Isabel dos Santos had a passport from us before, then it could only have been a Soviet one. After the country’s collapse, she would have had to exchange it for a Russian one, but she hasn’t mentioned that [process],” the radio station Ekho Moskvy noted.
Dos Santos’s assets in Angola are frozen, and she is suspected of using her position for self-enrichment
According to European experts, Russian citizenship may come in handy for dos Santos should things get bad enough for her that she will need to escape extradition to Angola. At the end of December 2019, the Luanda Provincial Court ordered all domestic assets belong to dos Santos and her husband as well as their business partner Mario Leite da Silva. The asset freeze followed accusations that the three had removed more than a billion dollars from the state corporations Sonangol and Sodiam, where they were shareholders. Sonangol is Angola’s largest state oil company, and Isabel dos Santos led the firm in 2016 and 2017. Sodiam is in the diamond trade.
Court documents indicate that the freeze was triggered by an attempt on dos Santos’s part to move part of her business to Russia, in part by sending 10 million euros to the country through her business partner. Portugal’s judicial police blocked the transaction.
At around the same time, news emerged that the Bank of Portugal had begun investigating a bank called Eurobic in November. Dos Santos owns a 42.5 percent share in Eurobic. Bank representatives called the investigation “part of the routine regulatory process.
Dos Santos has denied all of the Angolan government’s accusations against her, calling them “politically motivated” and a “witch hunt.” The anti-corruption campaign launched by João Lourenço, her father’s successor as Angola’s president, has already affected dos Santos’s family in the past: In September 2018, Isabel’s brother José Filomeno dos Santos, the former chair of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, went on trial for corruption charges.
In a January 15 interview on the Portuguese television channel RTP, Isabel dos Santos criticized anti-corruption efforts in Angola for selectively “neutralizing future political opponents.” When asked whether she was considering a presidential run in Angola in 2022, the wealthiest woman in Africa said, “It’s possible.”
However, if Isabel dos Santos does decide to run for president, she would have to surrender her Russian citizenship, Expresso noted. The Angolan Constitution does not allow dual citizens to compete for the republic’s presidency.
Translation by Hilah Kohen