At the beginning of 2013, Forbes Magazine announced that the first female African had crossed the threshold into the status of billionaire. Isabel Dos Santos is the eldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Her wealth is composed of 28.8 percent shares in Zon Multimedia, the biggest cable TV operator in Portugal, making her the largest shareholder in the conglomerate, as well as significant shares in Banco BPI, one Portugal’s largest publicly traded banks, and 25 percent of Banco BIC, a major Angolan Bank. She sits on the board of Zon and Banco BIC.
At first glance, the fact that an African woman has cracked the billionaire watermark may trigger a sentiment that females have made impressive strides across the continent. However, this revelation, when closely examined, should arouse suspicions and raise alarms of how such wealth has been accumulated, given the circumstances.
Jose Eduardo Dos Santos seized control of Angola in the late 1970’s following the decolonization by Portugal in 1975. After an initial conflict, Dos Santos and his Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) took command in 1979. Despite the power grab, the civil war continued to rage for 23 years as the MPLA’s chief rival, Unita, refused to succumb to the government forces. The result of the conflict, which ended in 2002, was a country left with millions of casualties and refugees, and a landscape littered with infrastructure damage and a plethora of undiscovered landmines.
Despite ruling for 33 years, Dos Santos was never formally elected to power until last year, when he won in a landslide during the presidential election with over 74 percent of the vote. In addition, a government initiated change to the constitution was enacted in 2010, which will allow Dos Santos to stand for election again in 2017, providing an opportunity to retain power for 43 years as head of the country while attempting to pass itself off as a democracy.
There are a number of egregious concerns wrapped in the sudden public wealth of the first daughter of the country. The length of time her father has been in power is extremely concerning, especially since there were discrepancies in the last two elections, one a presidential and one a parliamentary. In addition, further studies of opinions on the ground failed to achieve the same overwhelming support from the populace for Dos Santos or the MPLA. Concerns over state control of media outlets constantly touting the autocratic leader and his party infringed on basic freedoms to permit free and fair election practices.
The unveiling of the massive wealth accumulated by Isabel Dos Santos also raises questions. Angola experienced a major oil boom in the early to late 2000’s, which assisted an average economic growth rate of 15 percent between 2002 and 2008. While the country is raking in billions supplying crude oil to China and the U.S., the average citizen still only lives on about 2 USD per day and many are denied some of the basic necessities such as water and electricity.
Furthermore, transparency and corruption have been seen as a major problem. The enormous gap between rich and poor places Angola number 148 out of 187 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Couple this with the fact that they ranked 157 out of 174 on Transparency Internationals 2012 Corruption Perception Index and you have a recipe for rampant corruption and government embezzlement.
While both the president and his daughter live fairly secretive lives, away from the limelight, the figures from third-party observers point to shady tactics contributing to Isabel’s success. The fact that red flags have been thrown regarding corruption from the family and the government it runs, makes this achievement less than admirable. Many leaders of the third world have engaged in such tactics, controlling and manipulating the country in order to build massive fortunes while the average citizens grow destitute and hungry. Dos Santos’ former counterpart in neighboring Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, amassed a fortune estimated at 5 USD billion before his death in 1997, a reign that was labeled a “kleptocracy.”
While it is no secret that Isabel tried her hand in several enterprises early in life, these entrepreneurial explorations failed to yield much success. Her first business, a restaurant called Miami Beach, was definitely not considered a lucrative. In fact, several business enterprises that she attempted early on did not pan out. That still does not mean that corruption was involved, many of the wealthy fail before achieving the stalwarts of success. However, many of the businesses that achieved success, including her investments in Portugal were bought and approved by either her father or by a state firm called Sonangol. These endeavors point squarely to the misappropriation of state funds, especially since the majority of her success has mirrored the success of the Angolan oil boom.
With severe problems with transparency, the growing gap between rich and poor, the pattern of family members being rewarded by the Dos Santos regime, and the sudden influx of wealth from “black gold,” the fact that the President’s favorite daughter has benefited from these factors of financial windfall is unsurprising. That does not make it right. There is a dire need to change a culture of corruption and spread the wealth among the people, develop a middle class and invest in social projects and infrastructure for the good of the population, not simply a few political elite. Angola and Ms. Dos Santos represent just another example of the poor governance that has been present in many third world nations for centuries. Without realizing the benefit of development for all people, this reality will most likely not change.