Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of veteran Angolan politician and former President Eduardo dos Santos, routinely markets herself as an accomplished engineer, entrepreneur and public figure.
Declared by Forbes as Africa’s richest woman with a net worth of $2.2 billion, the billionaire businesswoman is now fighting a decision by the Angolan court to have her assets seized in a bid to recover debts she reportedly owes the government.
A Luanda court on Monday ordered the freeze of all bank accounts of Ms Isabel dos Santos and her Congolese husband Sindika Dokolo as well as those of their business partner Mário Leite, the head of the Angolan Foment Bank (BFA).
The court dispatch said there was evidence that she owes the state at least $100 million siphoned through state-run oil firm Sonangol and Sodiam, transferred through entities abroad.
According to the court’s decision, Isabel, her husband and Mr Leite acknowledged the money they owe but had refused to pay.
"Ms Isabel dos Santos also tried unsuccessfully to transfer huge amounts of Euros to Russia through Portugal in order to invest in Japan," it said.
Isabel’s assets in Angola include a 25 per cent stake in Unitel, one of the southern Africa state’s two mobile phone networks, and a 25 per cent stake in Banco Internacional de Credito (Banco BIC), 51 per cent in BFA and 99,9 per cent in Zap Media.
Charges ‘politically motivated’
She has also investments in Portugal and England. But while the move by the courts is seen as part of the new regime’s anti-corruption crackdown, she has viciously fought back the claims, outside court, arguing the decision flouted fair rules of justice.
"[The] Angolan court did not provide the companies or the individuals subject to the order prior notice of the existence of any proceedings. The companies and the individuals therefore did not have an opportunity to present evidence to defend themselves prior to the issuance of the order," she tweeted on Thursday.
She added that the temporary order did not give the government the right to seize the assets as there had been no proof yet the debt actually exists.
Isabel, who is abroad since 2018, says the claims "politically motivated".
She was ranked by Forbes magazine the 74th most powerful woman globally in 2017.
The 46-year-old studied engineering at King’s College, London, and opened her first business, a restaurant called Miami Beach in Luanda, in 1997 when she was 24. And despite coming from a family that ruled the country for decades, she argues she has contributed immensely by employing Angolans.
"My companies employ thousands of employees in Angola, providing well-paid jobs with good benefits," she claimed.
"We have contributed over 200 million dollars in taxes. We provide over 20,000 jobs, and we support over 30,000 small businesses."
The court move has caused a debate back in Angola. Local legislator João Pinto from the ruling MPLA party said there will be political, social and economic consequences.
In a Facebook post, the legislator said intelligence, prudence and caution should be employed in the process for justice to be seen as served.
Ms Isabel dos Santos argues that many of her firms will close due to the judicial confiscation alleging she would not pay salaries make new investments or honour agreements with suppliers.
"If I want to pay a bill to a supplier, I cannot" she told her followers on Instagram, responding to one user’s inquiry.
After the judicial order of confiscation, the country’s Attorney General’s Office has 30 days to implement it, or else the assets be returned to their owners, according to a report in state-run Jornal de Angola on Friday quoting a lawyer.
Isabel claims her family could be targeted because of its status and claimed her retired father had advised her to stay strong.
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In November 2017, the eldest daughter of Angolan former President José Eduardo dos Santos was sacked as chair of the board of the state-owned oil firm Sonangol.
She was later forced out in 2017 when João Lourenco took over from dos Santos following an election.
Dos Santos ruled Angola for 38 years and his family and allies still control huge sectors of Africa’s second-largest oil producer.
Lourenco’s sacking of the predecessor’s daughter was seen as a powerful message asserting his authority.
In January 2018, the president also fired José Filomeno dos Santos, Isabel’s half-brother, as the country’s head of the strategic $5 billion Sovereign Fund. He faces a court case in Angola and his trial is to resume on January 16.
President Lourenço has also dismissed a number of dos Santos kin and allies from key government institutions in a move seen as wrestling control from his predecessor.