By Tafi Mhaka
Is it when you are damn rich simply because, as rumour has it, daddy dearest is filthy rich as well?
Like Isabel dos Santos? Have you heard of her? Not yet perhaps? Amazingly she is not the kind of African woman you would describe as unremarkable. In fact you probably do not have a reason to know her, not really quite honestly, although you probably should. Unlike what Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are famous for, Isabel Dos Santos did not found a successful Silicon Valley company in the backyard of her daddy’s palatial home in Angola or find a cure to the wave of vanity sweeping across the political landscape in the motherland.
African leaders simply cannot get enough of themselves in the media: they love to hog the headlines all day and all night long. You will find them making public speeches to big rented crowds at the drop of a hat. You will find them dressed to the hilt in sublimely tailored suits and smiling at all and sundry in reassured fashion on state TV. You will find them on the front page of the national daily newspaper promising a better tomorrow and rallying the masses to work for the common good and fight for national pride and cohesion. You will find they love their families and friends just as dearly as themselves: their wealthy close associates and Gucci-wearing spouses and mostly truant children are never far behind the well-dressed statesmen (or stateswomen in some rare cases) in the fun-filled public appearances and the bad publicity stakes.
So when you turn to page two of your favourite newspaper, that daily tabloid of yours, the paper that has not been banned or had its offices bombed for running a story about the married son of the Prime Minister who had a Twitter affair with a high school student or something of the sort, you might find a story about a powerful woman and the global price of oil.
But, as you read your morning paper, you do not pay much attention to her going on about the oil price suffering a downward spiral and how this is bad for national oil revenues and the price of brown sugar. You find her utterly repulsive for no credible reason to be fair. She dresses pretty well. She appears most confident in public and on TV. The woman with the long black hair sounds well educated and somewhat knowledgeable about everything under the African sun. The problem is, no matter how hard you try; you cannot seem to reconcile her phenomenal success in business with her story, her history, her privileged lineage: She is the daughter of the President.
Isabel dos Santos is her name. She is also the richest woman in Africa. Forbes Magazine estimates that her net worth stands at just over US$3 billion. Not bad that. Mr Jose Eduardo dos Santos must be so proud of his daughter. She is as rich as Tilman Fertitta: a University of Houston drop out and self-made entrepreneur from the USA, who made his fortune building casinos and restaurants. The American businessman, entrepreneur and television personality is the chairman, CEO and sole owner of Landry’s, Inc., one of the nation’s largest restaurant corporations.
She is also as wealthy as Chung Eui-Sun. His father is the Chairman of Hyundai and he is the deputy chairman. Some analysts say Chung Eui-Sun is likely to become the third generation of his family to head Hyundai. His dad must be happy to see his son do so well.
Not everyone is over the moon about Isabel dos Santos’s success though. A group of lawyers based in Luanda is unhappy with a decision by President dos Santos to appoint his daughter to the post of CEO of the national oil company, Sonongol. The appointment smacks of nepotism of the highest order, it appears. Which begs the question: is Isabel dos Santos the most qualified candidate for this highly demanding position?
Let us see: She is the most wealthy woman in Africa, isn’t she? OK, that might count for something in the corridors of power in Luanda. And she has a vast range of business interests in Angola, Africa and Europe. So she should know a lot about running a state oil company right? No. Why should she? She also studied electrical engineering at King’s College in London. That should be of some help right? Not really: She does not have fifteen or twenty years of experience working in the oil and gas industry as you would expect the head of such a concern to have.
But Africa Top Success, a magazine based in Togo, named her ‘African of the Year’ in 2014 ahead of prominent African women like Angélique Kidjo, Lupita Nyong’o, Daphne Mashile-Nkosi, Fatou Bensouda and Koki Mutungi. The BBC named her in their list of 100 influential women for 2015 in November last year. So there must be something about her that is extraordinary, right?
“There’s a young generation of African women who are highly educated and also are very exposed to the world and they want to change History. And that’s our dream, make Africa a place like anywhere else in the world,” says Isabel Dos Santos.
Excellent to hear that from such a rich and kind-hearted woman. She has big dreams for Africa. So do the lawyers who have filed a historic petition in the Supreme Court of Angola opposing her appointment to the top position in the Angolan state oil company in June.
“The Supreme Court has accepted our suit and it’s a very important step. It is the first time that the court will examine a decision of the president,” said David Mendes, a spokesperson for 12 lawyers who filed the petition against the dubious appointment.
“The law stipulates that public officials cannot nominate or allow the nomination of family members,” he told the media on Tuesday.
Isabel dos Santos is not the only person to benefit from the good fortune of being related to the big man in charge of Angola. President Dos Santos appointed his son Jose Filomeno dos Santos to the position of Chairman of Fundo Soberano de Angola, the country’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund in 2013.
President Dos Santos certainly loves to see to it that his children have the best jobs in the land. Nothing but the best is good enough for Isabel and Jose.
But that is nothing compared to another African strongman notorious for his profligate lifestyle. Yes: What about the man who has ruled a central African country for 35 years? Does President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea care for his children as much and as well as President dos Santos does?
It certainly looks like he has gone the proverbial extra mile to lend his son a helping hand for life: President Nguema appointed his son Vice President of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in 2012.
I am not sure if this is better than heading a state oil firm but Vice President Teodoro Nguema and Isabel dos Santos must be thanking their ancestral spirits for their good fortunes in Africa.
In 2011, the US Justice Department seized assets worth $70 million that apparently belonged to Vice President Nguema. This included 24 luxury cars, that included a Maserati, Porsche, Rolls Royce, Bugatti and a $530,000 Ferrari 599 GTO, a $38m Gulfstream jet and $3.2m dollars worth of bejewelled Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a crystal-encrusted glove from the singer’s 1987 Bad tour purchased for $300,000.
Vice President Nguema had bought himself a 15,000-square-foot residence in the USA, which had eight bathrooms, the same number of fireplaces, a large swimming pool, and at least six walk-in wardrobes and a long, tree-lined drive, which meandered past first a 20-car garage, then a tennis court, and then a four-hole private golf course.
“While his people struggled, he lived the high life,” US assistant Attorney General, Lanny A. Breuer, told reporters then. “We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.”
According to the Mercer Cost of Living Survey, a survey which covers 207 cities around the world and measures the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment, Luanda is the most expensive city in the world for expatriates working for multinational companies to live in.
That aside, Angola is one of the poorest countries in the world in spite of its vast oil and mineral resources: it is the third largest producer of diamonds in Africa. Of the world’s 45 most important traded minerals, 35 have been found on Angolan soil. But Angola remains blighted by corruption, poverty and a poor human rights record.
“President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power for more than three decades, has faced increasing criticism in Angola for corruption in his government, mismanagement of public funds, and repression of critics, despite several pledges to improve human rights record. After winning the 2012 elections with a large majority, the ruling party Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola continued to use repressive measures, restricting freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Many journalists and activists are target with criminal defamation lawsuits, unfair trials, and intimidation, and the police often use excessive force and engage in arbitrary arrests to stop peaceful anti-government protests,” said a report on Angola for 2015 from Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea, which is one of the highest oil producers in Africa, ranks 144 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index that measures social and economic development. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, corruption is at an all-time high in Equatorial Guniea.
“Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while a large proportion of the population continues to live in poverty. Mismanagement of public funds and credible allegations of high-level corruption persist, as do other serious abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. Obiang’s eldest son and possible successor, Teodorin, was indicted in France on money-laundering charges. The United States agreed to settle with Teodorin in a separate case, stating the seized assets would be used to benefit Equatorial Guinea’s people.”
Although the people of both Angola and Equatorial Guinea do not have the good fortune the Dos Santos and Nguema families have, is it not time the leaders of Angola and Equatorial Guinea stopped making a fortune for their families alone?