Africa’s richest woman says she was targeted in ‘personal vendetta’

Africa’s richest woman has accused Angola’s President Joao Lourenço of pursuing a “personal vendetta” against her to destroy her business empire, in a filing to a London court that cited secret recordings of members of his inner circle.

Isabel dos Santos alleges Lourenço ordered Angolan prosecutors, judges and spies to launch a “political campaign” and lawsuits to dismantle her banks-to-telecoms business empire, according to a filing seen by the Financial Times. Lourenço replaced her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, as leader of Africa’s second-largest crude producer in 2017.

Under her father’s rule, dos Santos dominated business in Angola. She owned a quarter of Unitel, its biggest mobile phone company, and was chair of Sonangol, the state oil company. Her business interests have since crumbled and she has been pursued in courts around the world since the rise to power of Lourenço, who pledged to clean up crony capitalism in Angola after the near four-decade rule of her father.

But last week’s filing, made in a court case brought by Unitel to demand the repayment of loans made to dos Santos, marks a significant fightback by a woman who claims her wealth was self-made. Dos Santos says secret recordings show the president had a “political agenda and a personal vendetta”.

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Lourenço’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the filing, the secret recordings were made by Black Cube, the Israeli private intelligence group founded by former Mossad officers. Black Cube’s previous clients have included Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood film producer, Beny Steinmetz, the Franco-Israeli mining magnate, and ENRC.

The firm is said to have recorded members of Angola’s political and business elite without their knowledge, including Carlos Saturnino, the chair of Sonangol, and relatives of such powerful political figures as Manuel Vicente, a former vice-president and head of Sonangol who now advises Lourenço. Sonangol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

These individuals divulged the existence of a government task force devoted to targeting dos Santos “using the resources of the Angolan state and institutionalised power” including “pre-determined legal proceedings,” the filing claims.

They also made clear that the ‘Luanda Leaks’ — which alleged dos Santos looted state resources — were orchestrated by Angola’s intelligence service and presented as the work of Rui Pinto, a Portuguese hacker, the filing also alleges. “This is pure propaganda” and Pinto “always acted alone,” said William Bourdon, Pinto’s lawyer.

The “political campaign” also included Sonangol, the owner of another quarter of Unitel, acquiring a 25 per cent share in Unitel from Brazil’s Oi and then trying to seize the dos Santos-held stake, according to the filing. Dos Santos lost her stake in the company last year. Sonangol did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Oi said that it “vehemently denies and considers absurd the allegation of any type of involvement in collusion or political interest involving the sale of its stake in Unitel,” which it said it had always planned as part of a restructuring.

José Eduardo dos Santos ruled Angola for nearly four decades, through a long civil war and its rise as a major oil producer with a reputation as one of Africa’s most corrupt countries. His daughter’s fall from grace began in 2017 when Lourenço sacked her as the chair of Sonangol.

Two years later, the Angolan state froze her local assets over allegations that she defrauded the state of $1bn of funds in diamonds and oil-related transactions. This kicked off a legal battle around the world including a similar asset freeze in Portugal. Sonangol and Sodiam, the state-owned diamond trader, are also suing dos Santos over past business deals they claim she manipulated to loot government resources.

Isabel Dos Santos denies any fraud or other wrongdoing. She is challenging the Portuguese freeze at the European Court of Human Rights. The suit is “but one element of a malicious and far-reaching campaign by the Angolan government to illegally seize the assets of Isabel dos Santos” said Michelle Duncan, a legal counsel for dos Santos.

Unitel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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