I'm a scapegoat: Angola's Isabel dos Santos decries corruption 'witch hunt'

By Noah Browning and Dmitry Zhdannikov

By Noah Browning and Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) - Angolan billionaire and former first daughter Isabel Dos Santos decried a New Year's Eve court order to freeze her vast assets as a "witch hunt" engineered to weaken her father's influence and distract from economic failures.

Dos Santos, named Africa's richest woman by Forbes with a fortune estimated at over $2 billion, is a highly divisive figure in Angola, where she is nicknamed "the Princess". Supporters see an inspirational entrepreneur while detractors say she embodies the kind of nepotism and corruption that has hamstrung the continent.

Since President Joao Lourenco succeeded dos Santos's father José Eduardo in 2017, after a nearly four-decade grip on power, he has cracked down on the role of his predecessor's children in state enterprises. He fired dos Santos from her job chairing oil firm Sonangol and her brother from the sovereign wealth fund.

In the latest step of what Angolan authorities say is one of Africa's most successful anti-corruption drives, dos Santos's assets were frozen on Dec. 31, threatening to turn a titan of African business into a pariah.

In an interview with Reuters, the 46-year-old rejected the corruption allegations levelled at her.

"This is a political trial, you have a persecuting state and servile and partisan magistrates. Then you have a woman who has been chosen to set an example as a scapegoat. That's me." Dos Santos told Reuters in an interview in London.

"In an attempt to mask and distract people from the real economic challenges, (Lourenco) is praising this very selective witch hunt that he is portraying as a fight against corruption."

The Angolan government and the state prosecutor's office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Court documents allege dos Santos and her husband steered payments of more than $1 billion from Sonangol and official diamond trading group Sodiam to companies in which they held stakes.

Dos Santos said she and her colleagues were not contacted about any investigation or asked to provide any defence, and she learned of the court action via journalists over WhatsApp.

Prosecutors pushed the case forward based on "lies, false testimony and also false documents", she said.


PRIVATISING SONANGOL?

Angola's government is considering privatising key state firms including Sonangol, which has struggled with output declines as power blackouts have repeatedly hit the capital.

But Dos Santos said Lourenco "might have no choice" but to privatise Sonangol due to its poor performance.

She also said efforts to split a joint stake she shared with Sonangol in a Portuguese oil company, Galp Energia <GALP.LS>, had been scuppered by the asset freeze.

Sonangol did not respond to a request for comment.

Buoyed by high oil prices in the last decade, Angolan businesses bought up sizeable assets in former colonial master Portugal, with dos Santos acquiring stakes in Portuguese firms, including Eurobic bank, telecoms company NOS <NOS.LS> and engineering company Efacec.

The Bank of Portugal told Reuters it was evaluating dos Santos' suitability as a shareholder of Portuguese banks, but she said she did not fear for her financial interests abroad because, unlike Angola, they have "a state of law".


RICHEST, POOREST

Dos Santos says her mission is to encourage entrepreneurship and galvanize the private sector to drive growth in Angola, Africa's second-biggest oil exporter, a major diamond producer and sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest economy.

But her critics say her vast fortune amassed by the businesswoman and her family is offensive in one of the world's poorest countries, where the World Bank has estimated two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day.

Her jet-setting across the international lecture circuit, which she advertises to her large Instagram following, rankles with many of her detractors.

While she declined to elaborate on her personal wealth, Dos Santos said investments in her Angolan companies run into the billions of dollars, ranging from telecoms firm Unitel to Banco de Fomento Angola, a new brewery and bottling plant, a TV satellite operator and stores.

The asset freeze endangered tens of thousands of employees in her firms, she said, and threatened to lock billions of dollars in private and commercial bank accounts underpinning mortgages and imports of basic foodstuffs.

Dos Santos said the moves by Angolan authorities against her were an attempt to erase her father's influence within the ruling MPLA party, as internal elections loom in 2021 for the party leadership.

The MPLA triumphed in a 1975-2002 civil war with help from Cuba and the Soviet Union over groups backed by the United States and apartheid-era South Africa.

Isabel, born in Soviet Azerbaijan while the future president and his Russian wife were petroleum engineering students, recalls taking her first steps in an MPLA camp deep in the Angolan bush among guerrilla "freedom fighters".

"What's happening now is a move to neutralise anyone who could influence a change of course within the MPLA," she said.


(Reporting by Noah Browning and Dmitry Zdhannikov; Additional reporting by Joice Alves and Karin Strohecker in London and Sergio Goncalves in Lisbon; Editing by Pravin Char)