You remember the name Isabel dos Santos, don’t you? If not, here’s a reminder. In 2014, songstress Mariah Carey took a million dollars to sing in Angola. The next year, fellow chanteuse Nicki Minaj was paid twice that much to perform in the same country. Both of these big paydays – these big, dirty paydays – were courtesy of a conglomerate called Unitel, which was controlled by one Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the country’s then dictator, José Eduardo dos Santos, one of the most corrupt leaders on earth.
Unitel, headquartered in the Netherlands, was only a small part of Isabel’s empire, which, after the Angolan parliament passed a law prohibiting the president himself from having business interests, grew even larger because the prez responded to the law by transferring his own extensive holdings – which he had acquired mostly through good, old-fashioned embezzlement – to Isabel. As we have noted, Isabel, thanks to her father’s love of money and of family, became the wealthiest woman in all of Africa, with a fortune of over $2 billion, a “superyacht” worth just under $50 million, luxurious residences in London, Monaco, and Portugal, and a social circle that includes Paris Hilton, Harvey Weinstein, and Lindsay Lohan. In her home country, she’s known as “the princess.”
Anyway, Isabel’s readiness to hand out big bucks to big-name American pop artists resulted in big news headlines around the world. Carey got so much heat in the press for taking cash from the dos Santos clan that she ended up issuing an ardent apology and claiming that she had acted out of ignorance. Minaj was also criticized by the media, but she replied by lashing out at her critics and taking a cozy Instagram photo with Isabel, whom Minaj described as follows: “she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world….GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”
Ah, those were the days. In 2017, after 38 years in power, dos Santos retired from the presidency, although he stayed on as head of the ruling party, while Isabel and her brother José Filomeno retained the high-ranking government positions to which he had appointed them, reflecting the fact that the family had no plans of actually relinquishing power or giving up large-scale corruption. Alas for them, things didn’t work out quite the way they had planned. Once papa was out of office, his successor, President João Lourenço, fired the dos Santos children and spearheaded a serious government effort to trace and recover some of the former ruling clan’s ill-gotten gains. The Angolan government’s corruption probe targeted not only the ex-president himself but also Isabel, her husband, and her brother José Filomeno.
The case is proceeding apace. On January 4, the Daily Mail reported that an Angolan court had frozen £750 million of Isabel’s assets “in an attempt to recover state funds.” Also, Portuguese police “intercepted £8.5million that Isabel tried to transfer to Russia to protect her assets.” Isabel, now in exile in Portugal, isn’t happy about the court’s action, accusing it of carrying out what she called a “witch hunt” – “a politically motivated attack which is part of a wider strategy to discredit the legacy of President dos Santos.” Of course, one part of her father’s “legacy” is Angola’s rating as 165th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Is it possible that Angolan authorities, with international cooperation of the sort Portugal is providing, will turn that legacy around? If dos Santos ends up broke, will Paris Hilton and her other showbiz pals keep taking her calls?