The enigmatic Isabel dos Santos, arguably the most famous and infamous person in modern Portuguese history, has certainly had her ups and downs.
Life for her now seems to be at an all-time low and it is difficult to see what she can do about it.
The incumbent government in her homeland, the former Portuguese colony of Angola, which was returned to power in the general election in August this year, wants to finally put her behind bars for alleged corruption on a grand scale. As in Angola, the Portuguese authorities have frozen all her assets in major companies here. The Netherlands has done the same. Her reputation in the United States is such that she has been banned from entering the country.
Things became all the more serious last week when Interpol issued a red notice asking global law enforcement agencies to locate and provisionally arrest her pending extradition, surrender or similar legal actions.
This 49-year-old widow with three children is believed to be living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, though sometimes making visits to Lisbon and London. She had managed the stakes in her Lisbon companies for 12 years before immediately closing all operations when her assets were frozen in June 2020.
It is claimed she is now hiding from justice. She insists she is not and points out that she has always turned up on time when requested for questioning by the government’s investigative lawyers in Lisbon. She believes she is being politically persecuted, the victim of false conspiracy assertions.
Despite this, she declared she would consider running for president in Angola’s general election in August. “I want to serve my country,” she said from an undisclosed location in a video interview with the German news organisation Deutsche Welle. That was a strange statement as Angola is the one place, above all others, she needs to steer clear of as she would be arrested on arrival for allegedly causing vast losses for the oil-producing, yet economically struggling, nation.
With dual citizenship in Angola and Russia, it might be possible for Isabel dos Santos to go to Russia as a last-ditch place to live in exile and avoid arrest, trial and likely long-term imprisonment.
Born in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, Isabel was educated in England, opened a restaurant in Angola in her early twenties and went on to create a business empire as an investment entrepreneur, thus becoming Africa’s wealthiest woman with assets worth billions of dollars.
Her life was complicated at an early age when her father, former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, divorced her Russian mother, Tatiana, in 2002. Her mother took Isabel to England to attend an all-girls school in Kent and later to complete an engineering degree at King’s College, London. Her mother died in 2020.
Her father, who had met Tatiana while he was studying as a young man in Azerbaijan, went on to become Angola’s president and dictator from 1978 to 2017. He married again at least twice, and Isabel was the eldest of his 10 children. Her husband died in the United Arab Emirates in 2021. Her father died in Spain in July this year.
She has repeatedly denied allegations of embezzlement and money laundering, including charges in 2020 that she and her husband had stashed a billion dollars worth of Angolan state funds into their own companies while her father was president. She claims this is all false information, conspiracy lies invented by and on behalf of her father’s successor, João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, who has served as president since 2017.
Much of Isabel dos Santos’ alleged criminal behaviour has been exposed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in their ‘Luanda Leaks’ and subsequent ‘Pandora Papers’ documents.
The total value of her frozen assets is not clear. Nor is how much she has left to live on. One thing is clear, however: money does not always buy happiness.
COMMENT By Len Port
Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt