Photo by Rafael Marques
Africa / Angola

Vae Victis, Isabel dos Santos


The year was 390 BC, a little over a century since the foundation of the Roman Republic. It was still a small state, not yet occupying the entire Italian peninsula nor the vast European and Mediterranean expanse it would reach in the years of the Empire. The Romans had, with their conquest of new territories, run into conflict with the Gallic peoples of western-central Europe, and, in a daring assault on Roman hegemony in central Italy led by the chieftain Brennus, the Gauls launched a massive attack on the Roman capital. They were successful. In the decisive Battle of Allia, the Gauls were victorious and sacked Rome. Romans, attempting to buy their freedom, offered the Gauls one thousand pounds of weighed gold. In an act of righteous conceit, Brennus threw his sword on the scales and yelled, “Vae victis” … woe to the conquered.

It was her first summons, to her surprise. In fact, her first entanglement with law enforcement of any kind in her forty-five years of existence. Isabel dos Santos, years into her reign as the head of one of Africa’s most important oil companies and a member of the preeminent ruling family of Angola, was not one to be easily threatened. Yet, somehow, Angolan prosecutors were now knocking at her door, wanting to ask questions about the legitimacy of her business practices. Was this a freak phenomenon, the product of some aberration in records or forgetful bookkeeping, or could it be something more? Isabel dos Santos was the first one to flaunt her own record as a self-made businesswoman, a champion for women’s rights, and the product of a strong upbringing. Could it really be that this modern magnate had something more insidious up her sleeve?

José Eduardo dos Santos came to power in Angola in 1979 after years of brutal Portuguese colonial rule, but was immediately thrust into a civil war that would engulf the country for over twenty years. Like many civil wars at the time, it became a mere proxy war for the Soviet Union and United States to pit competing ideologies against each other. On one side was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the US-backed militant organization that fashioned itself as a political party. On the other was the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola  (MPLA), the USSR-backed ruling party that essentially differed only in ideology. The war gave dos Santos near dictatorial powers, which, while not uncommon at the time in Africa, would persist past the continent’s political liberalization period of the 1990’s. The justification for this airtight rule, was, of course, the civil war; however, as the Cold War ended and funding dried up, the fighting could only continue for so long. Peace was achieved in 2001, but dos Santos had ensured that this would not threaten his control over the nation.

Elections? Not that important to dos Santos, as long as they were promised but never achieved. Much like how we in the United States like to aspire to bipartisanship as the goal for a more ideal government, Angolans—and many Africans for that matter—can only aspire to free and fair elections. Instead, men like dos Santos take near despotic control…but why? Why does democracy struggle to establish roots in this part of the world more than anywhere else? Taking a quick detour to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will help us understand this issue. You would be hard pressed to find an image of its leader Mobutu Sese Seko, without his favorite leopard hat. No, that’s not imitation leopard print—that’s real leopard. This begs the question, “How does a government leader, especially one of an impoverished country, afford such ostentatious displays of wealth on a government salary?” The answer is brutally simple—he doesn’t.

Mobutu Sese Seko, pictured left, in his signature leopard hat (Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

Rather than rely on what Max Weber might call rational or legal authority to legitimate governance, many African states, including Angola, fuse together charismatic leadership with traditional forms of authority to establish their state legitimacy.1 For dos Santos and many others in the postcolonial period, deep patronage networks are the basis for all state governments. Political offices are not used to advance the public good but rather the interests of the office holder. These attitudes are not just held by elites, but are important parts of culture. When electing officials, constituents’ main concerns are not how they will be represented but instead what spoils they can reap by supporting the victor. In the case of Angola, there was only one victor—the dos Santos family. Through the MPLA, the dos Santos family used its power to advance its own wealth and clout. Among those in the family, none more clearly exemplified this role than Isabel dos Santos herself.

Isabel was not some petty corruptionist scrounging the streets for some schmucks to swindle. No, she was a grand corruptionist, abusing her power for her own personal gain at the expense of the people she was supposed to be serving. At first, her enterprises were small, such as her late ‘90s venture into the nightclub industry with the “Miami Beach Club” that opened in a trendy area in Luanda. Her business interests expanded slowly but surely. Around this time, she formed connections with industry in Portugal that would later lead to her maleficent business practices bridging continents and entering the European sphere. She personally increased her stake in investment banks, telecom, and multimedia industries—with public dollars provided at public expense. These operations were only advanced further when her father, none other than president José Eduardo dos Santos, appointed her as chairperson of the state-run oil company, Sonangol, in 2016. While the salary and stock options were most definitely plentiful, the devil was in the details. Given the inextricable link between the government and the oil company, dos Santos did not have to worry about government watchdogs cracking down on her unscrupulous practices when her family held all keys to the castle. This accelerated a long process of redirecting oil profits from public funds into private pockets.

The good times were very, very good. It seemed like the money would flow forever, or at least as long as the dos Santos family held tight control over the governmental institutions of Angola. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, José Eduardo dos Santos declared that he would step down from the presidency in an apparent act of retirement. Presiding over a country engulfed by civil wars, near economic collapse, and immense poverty for thirty eight years can be tiring, especially for a leader in his mid-seventies. He would, despite this step-down, retain his leadership position in the MPLA, and of course Isabel would continue to serve as chairperson of the country’s most important financial institution.

The dos Santos empire seemed as though it would be the one to last a thousand years, if only João Lourenço had not succeeded the family patriarch to the presidency. At first, it seemed like the old order would remain—dos Santos would have his party position, his children important posts in the government, and all would be well. Lourenço did not agree. Immediately upon taking office, he dismissed Isabel from her role as chairperson of Sonangol. This would not be an isolated action, for in Angola, when it rains, it pours. In July of 2018, the new president nullified lucrative contracts that had been signed with companies under the control of Isabel. Two months later, Lourenço made his masterstroke. He arrested the son of the former president, José Filomeno, on charges of criminal activity relating to bank transfers out of the government fund he managed. This coincided with the removal of the former president, José Eduardo dos Santos, from his role as president of the MPLA. In this highly publicized display, Lourenço ensured that he would shore up support for his actions amongst the people, party, and elites.

These were necessary moves in the game of politics: it was something dos Santos made a fatal error in not recognizing, and something of which Lourenço took quick advantage. While Lourenço may have held de jure power in title, that power had not been established as legitimate without holding the means of revenue—oil. As long as the dos Santos family retained control over the oil industry and other key revenue sources in Angola, it could bend people to its bidding. Lourenço, being rather power-hungry himself, recognized the crucial axiom, “fair is foul and foul is fair.” To crown himself, he had to depose his predecessor.

Joao Lourenço during a visit to France in 2018 (courtesy École Polytechnique)

To the outsider, the brutal nature of this “eat or be eaten” mentality may seem especially vicious. However, the practice has all but become commonplace in resource-rich countries, especially those rich in oil. What makes oil especially brutal is its tendency to be withdrawn from the people. In Angola, nearly all oil deposits are offshore, meaning that the government can operate rigs with little to no oversight from, or sense of responsibility to, the people. These rigs become the battlefields on which wars of inheritance, power, and wealth are fought by the country’s most privileged elite, such as the ‘self-made’ Isabel dos Santos.

Official state rhetoric calls this fight against the dos Santos family a crackdown on corruption; however, there is little evidence to believe that Lourenço’s motives for reform are genuine. While reform might bring a politician popular support from the people, it distances him from the establishment such reforms threaten. While in Western countries, we largely consider the popular base of power to outweigh that of institutions—a basic feature of any democracy—Angola’s balance of power is flipped to favor those at the top. State income comes almost exclusively from its revenues from commodities, rather than a strong tax base. In this organization, money in the state flows from the top down, from the government to the people, rather than bottom up, from tax revenues to the government. While the state is democratic in theory, the government lacks the responsibility to the people that would be ensured by taxes. Lourenço would lose much more by supporting the people, who can provide him with no income from which to govern, versus supporting the establishment and status quo of corrupt practices.

This would not be the last of Isabel dos Santos. While her corrupt practices potentially put her at more risk than the rest of her family, she, like any truly shrewd corruptionist, held a few cards up her sleeve. Despite being heavily entrenched in the state, Isabel made a conscious effort to establish a reputation as a self-made businesswoman, a figure of “Africa rising” and twenty-first century modernism. While little of this is true, the media seems to be buying it. She has been recognized as the richest woman in Africa by Forbes, and, more oddly, as one of the 100 most influential women in the world by the BBC. Despite being completely discredited in the Angolan state, she continues to give interviews to sympathetic members of the press who conveniently ignore her more insidious side and choose to highlight her role as a “model” for other aspiring African female entrepreneurs. Most recently, in September she attended the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, mingling with world presidents, CEOs, and other “masters of the universe.”2

Lourenço struggles to fully dismantle Isabel’s apparatus despite his apparent attempts. It is, after all, difficult to fully destroy Swiss bank accounts full of money laundered so many times over that it’s faded white. Despite losing nearly all control in Angola, Isabel retains some of her business interests in Portugal that are outside Angolan purview but built on Angolan dollars. In all likelihood, there is nothing more Lourenço would like to do than squash Isabel like the tsetse flies omnipresent in his country. And, just like the fly, dos Santos is blisteringly bothersome and perseveringly present.

It seems that the entirety of the dos Santos family was doomed from the very moment it loosened its grip on power. Returning back to that moment when Isabel received her summons by the prosecutors her father once held under his thumb, was her surprise really at the fact that she had been summoned, or surprise that that summons had only just come now? Why drag the family out on the coals and make them suffer a cruel, torturous fate? Such is the nature of Angolan politics—for one to forge a fortune of their own, others must suffer. Violent delights meet violent ends, and it seems that while the dos Santos family played a most dangerous game, they risked becoming it as well.


In the short term, the Romans were a defeated, conquered people. However, as history shows us, this did not stop them from overcoming their strife and forging a new empire centuries later. If history is written by the victors, only time will tell how the dos Santos family fares in the Angolan historical canon.


  1. See Weber’s 1922 essay, The Three Types of Legitimate Rule
  2. For the origin of this term, see Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”