By Hollie McKay
Published January 18, 2020
Angolan billionaire Isabel dos Santos, who is battling her homeland in a fight over her assets as the former first daughter, is now hinting she might run for president.
Dos Santos has vehemently denied the allegations against her, calling the financial scandal "a very politically motivated attack."
“I’m a businesswoman; I am an entrepreneur. We were not offered an opportunity to present our case. ... We were not summoned, we didn’t receive any notices,” she told Fox News on Friday.
On New Year’s Eve, a court in the Angolan capital of Luanda ordered a freeze on all her bank accounts, citing corruption and allegations that the former ruling family has pilfered more than $2 billion. Dos Santos, 46, is the eldest child of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who served as president of Angola for almost four decades.
Dos Santos, 46, maintains that the attack on her business interests comes at the behest of President Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco, who took office in 2017. Lourenco pledged to end corruption and has subsequently set sights on his predecessor’s offspring and their dealings with state enterprises.
“The Angolan economy has been performing very badly. President Joao’s track record has been very, very poor. Unfortunately, he and his team did not understand the economy,” Dos Santos said. “They don’t understand the private sector and have conducted a number of policies that have just led to impoverishing the middle class.”
She said businesses are at the breaking point and taxes are soaring, while “people don’t have enough money to eat.”
Prosecutors have so far not attempted to seize Dos Santo’s overseas assets, but this week told Reuters that they would not hesitate to do so if necessary.
Dos Santos is one of the world's richest women.
According to Forbes, Dos Santos has a fortune worth more than $2 billion and holds notable stakes in a litany of Portuguese and Angolan firms, including telecoms company NOS, oil, and gas venture Galp Energia and the Eurobic bank. A London-educated engineer chaired Angola’s state oil company Sonangol for several months in the final stretch of her father’s rule but was removed by Lourenco soon after his reign began.
Her brother, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, has been accused of smuggling $500 million out of the country. He and an alleged co-conspirator have pleaded not guilty.
While the crackdown on the former first family has been welcomed by some, Dos Santos said many see it as a thinly veiled political maneuver.
“We have elections coming up, and there are a lot of voices within the system who feel that Joao Lourenco is not the right candidate,” she said.
On that note, Dos Santos did not rule out her own political ambitions. While she has long been personified as a business advocate, a plunge into the public realm isn’t off the table.
“We believe that we need to empower businesses and that we need to create new business. We need to create new jobs. And right now, the policies I am seeing in my country don’t reflect that,” she said. “We have an economy that is very much dominated by the state and by government. That economy must be liberalized. I would like to see a government that is a lot closer to the people, a lot closer in delivering good service and a good value to the people.”
A candidate with “private sector” experience is urgently needed in her view.
“Someone who understands the economy, someone who can actually deliver on jobs,” she said. “I love my country, and I am a patriot. I believe in a free-market economy. I believe in competitiveness. I’m really looking forward to seeing a country that has a different vision than the one today. Angolans deserve better.”
The country’s first local elections are slated for this year, with the next presidential term up for grabs in 2022.
The oil-swathed nation has a population of 28.8 million and relies on the petroleum industry for over 90 percent of its exports. According to the World Bank, Angola “has made substantial economic and political progress” since its civil war ended in 2002, yet the country “continues to face massive development challenges, which include reducing its dependency on oil and diversifying the economy; rebuilding its infrastructure; and improving governance, human development indicators and the living conditions of the population.”
Angola’s Washington-based embassy did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.