An Angolan court has ordered a freeze on the Angola-based assets of Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire daughter of the country’s former president, and her Congolese husband, the African art collector Sindika Dokolo. The move was undertaken at the end of last year as the Angolan government attempts to reclaim what it says is more than $1 billion owed by dos Santos and her associates. The couple has vowed to fight what they describe as a politically motivated campaign.
The matter is shaping up as a major showdown between the state and Africa’s richest woman. Last week, Angolan president João Lourenço and his Congolese counterpart Felix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo met in the Angolan city of Benguel, issuing a joint statement urging dos Santos and Dokolo to exercise “maximum cooperation with the competent authorities of the state and the Angolan court,” according to Reuters. The same statement urged “international cooperation to support the effort to combat corruption and impunity in Angola,” and said that Angola was empowered to pursue measures to recover assets “illegally placed abroad.”
Former defense minister Lourenço was the successor to dos Santos’s father, José Eduardo dos Santos, for control of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party. Since taking power in 2017, however, he has made anti-corruption a priority as the country faces financial contraction. Oil-rich Angola is listed on various indexes as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the 37-year rein of dos Santos has been widely associated with corruption and nepotism.
For her part, dos Santos has told the Financial Times that she is preparing a legal rebuttal to what she calls an attempt to dismantle her businesses and “erase the legacy” of her father. From an unknown location in Africa, she called the court order a “politically motivated witch-hunt.”
Speaking directly to Artnet News, Dokolo characterized the asset frieze as a “political vendetta” and a “commercial dispute.” His enviable contemporary art collection, which numbers around 3,000 works, is based in the Angolan capital Luanda, but Dokolo says that it has not been affected by the recent scrutiny on the couple’s assets.
Back in 2016, Isabel dos Santos was appointed the head of Angola’s state-owned oil firm Sonangol by her father before he ended his final presidential term. When Lourenço succeeded him in 2017, the new president fired Isabel dos Santos from her post. Lourenço later also removed her half-brother Jose Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos from his position as head of the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, following allegations of corruption involving an alleged transfer of $500 million from the sovereign wealth fund out of the country.
Isabel dos Santos’s portfolio of now-frozen assets are held in diverse sectors, including banking, supermarkets, and telecommunications. Forbes has estimated her wealth at $2.2 billion. She is frequently dubbed “the Princess,” a nickname she objects to. “I don’t know many princesses who get out of bed and build supermarkets,” she said to Financial Times.
BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding described the fact that the order freezing her assets was read out on Angolan state television as “a powerful gesture in a country where, for decades, the Dos Santos family had seemed untouchable.”
Though both Isabel dos Santos and Sindika Dokolo are staples at international galas, charity events, and parties, Dokolo has left a formidable stamp on the art world in particular with regards to African art. Pieces from his expansive collection are frequently sent on loan to major museum shows, including documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens and BOZAR in Brussels. His holdings include works by major figures from the continent such as William Kentridge, Zenele Muholi, and Yinka Shonibare.
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