World

The Woman Once Considered Africa’s Richest Faces Arrest on Graft Charges

JOHANNESBURG — The Angolan authorities are seeking the arrest of Isabel dos Santos, a former president’s daughter who was once considered Africa’s wealthiest woman, on charges that she enriched herself with state resources, the nation’s attorney general has told a state-run news agency.

The attorney general, Hélder Pitta Grós, told the outlet, Angop, on Monday that Angola was seeking the arrest of Ms. dos Santos, the former head of the state-owned oil company, through Interpol, after failing to locate her and getting no response from her or her lawyers to multiple requests that she submit to questioning.

Interpol issues “red notices,” which are requests to law enforcement agencies worldwide to find and detain a person. As of Tuesday morning, no such notice for Ms. dos Santos was listed in Interpol’s online database.

The effort to arrest Ms. dos Santos comes after years of investigations by the Angolan authorities into the enormous fortune she amassed while her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, who died in July, was president.

Her father’s 38-year tenure in office was marked by an inundation of corruption accusations; he stepped down in 2017, and his handpicked successor, João Lourenço, became president.

Mr. Lourenço vowed to fight graft, and his government soon took aim at his predecessor’s children. José Filomeno dos Santos, the former president’s son, was sentenced in 2020 to five years in prison for embezzling $500 million from Angola’s sovereign fund. (He remains free while the case is being appealed.)

Ms. dos Santos has been under intense scrutiny for years from the attorney general’s office in Angola, an oil-rich nation in southern Africa where about half of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

In January 2020, Mr. Pitta Grós said that Ms. dos Santos would be charged with “money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management” and “forgery of documents, among other economic crimes” that he said she committed while running Sonangol, the state-owned oil company.

The investigation dragged, in part because Ms. dos Santos did not live in Angola, Mr. Pitta Grós has said. She has residences in London and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, among other places.

In his remarks to Angop on Monday, Mr. Pitta Grós said that Ms. dos Santos had not responded to letters asking her to submit to questioning, which were sent to her lawyers and to her homes in Angola’s capital, Luanda, and in the Netherlands. Her current whereabouts is unknown, he said.

Soccer on a rooftop in Luanda, Angola, in 2020. In Angola, an oil-rich nation in southern Africa, about half the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.Credit…Luke Dray/Getty Images

Reached by telephone this month, Ms. dos Santos said she had always made herself available to the authorities. She said that she and her legal team had not received any notice for her arrest and could not find one for her in Interpol’s database.

“My address is known, my whereabouts are known,” she said, adding that she was currently living in London. “I’m not a fugitive. I’m not hiding from anyone,” she added.

If a notice or warrant were issued, she said, she would be willing to go to court to provide evidence that she had never stolen state resources and that her companies were built legitimately and financed by banks.

She said the investigations and accusations against her were “political persecution” by Mr. Lourenço. “He sees me as a political threat and a potential presidential candidate,” she said.

Even as accusations of corruption and nepotism tarnished the reputation of Ms. dos Santos’s father, his name carried considerable weight because of his background in the Angolan resistance to colonial rule.

Some analysts saw his death in July as a chance for his party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or M.P.L.A., to parlay nostalgia surrounding his legacy into support in the national election, held in August.

Indeed, the party did eke out a victory, ensuring Mr. Lourenço a second term in office. But the M.P.L.A. had its worst showing ever, with many voters disappointed by continuing economic woes and cynical about Mr. Lourenço’s anticorruption campaign.

Ms. dos Santos’s wealth was once estimated at $3.5 billion by Forbes, which called her the richest woman in Africa. But many of her assets across the world, including in Portugal and the Netherlands, have since been frozen because of the corruption accusations hanging over her. Forbes has estimated that she is no longer a billionaire.

Gilberto Neto contributed reporting from Luanda, Angola.

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