Although the MPLA is set to win this week’s elections, the business bonanza enjoyed by the President’s family may not last
There is one thing about the general elections of 23 August we can be almost certain of: Defence Minister João Lourenço, hand-picked by President José Eduardo dos Santos, remains stoutly loyal to his mentor and should win the Presidency comfortably. Then the questions start. Will a President Lourenço also feel the need to extend that loyalty to Dos Santos’s family, some of whom have their own billion dollar empires?
Lourenço’s campaign on national television and social media has made much of the need to clamp down on corruption and restructure tne economy away from a parasitic dependence on revenues from opaque oil sales. At his last campaign rally on 18 August, Lourenço acknowledged the growing hardships of the ‘povo’ (people) as he spelt out plans to run a more productive and export-oriented economy. He made no links between the stratospheric wealth of the elite and mass poverty.
Other members of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola are less constrained. Opposition to the Dos Santos ‘family business’ in particular, has been growing in MPLA circles. Recently, a respected general, Manuel Mendes de Carvalho Pacavira ‘Paka’, expressed out loud what could never previously be said in public when he threatened to put presidential daughter Isabel dos Santos in prison, and openly called her father corrupt in a July interview with the Voice of America’s Portuguese service. That outburst may explain the statute passed this year that gives tenure to Dos Santos’s appointees heading the armed forces and security services.
Most Angolans, and foreigners doing business there, know that Isabel is a multi-billionaire, and her brother, José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos ‘Zenu’, controls Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, one of the biggest in Africa. Much less well-known is the pervasive role in the mass media of a company run by two of President Dos Santos’s lesser-known children, the 39-year-old Welwitschia ‘Tchizé’ and her younger brother José Paulino, 32, aka ‘Coréon Dú’ (AC Vol 53 No 2, Marques takes them on).
Semba Comunicação has taken immense sums of money from the public purse to produce mass media propaganda for domestic and foreign consumption, some of it through a heavily subsidised television station, TPA2 (Televisão Pública de Angola). ‘They are the real Ministry of Culture,’ one former culture ministry civil servant told Africa Confidential. ‘When and where the money for cultural promotion goes is their decision and they answer to nobody about how the money is spent,’ he added. Although severely hit by Angola’s chronic foreign exchange shortage, Semba is still highly influential.
Tchizé has been open about her rivalry with her much more famous 44-year-old half-sister Isabel, daughter of the president’s first wife, Russian geologist Tatiana Kukanova. Isabel is well-known in Luanda’s political and business circles for surrounding herself with young, highly-educated professionals and for making money; Tchizé is not. ‘She is nothing without her father, and will be in trouble when he leaves,’ says an MPLA source. The source believes that the often clandestine functions Semba performs for the state may be important to its continued rule, but the company itself will find it hard to survive without President Dos Santos to protect it.
Dynasty and dollars
Isabel and Tchizé have gone head-to-head in the media business. Isabel runs the main mobile phone company, Unitel, which also owns the biggest satellite TV provider, ZAP. ZAP has been investing in high-tech television studios in the wealthy Talatona district of Luanda, while Semba specialises in providing content for television. It has strong links to DSTV, ZAP’s main competitor, too.
This sibling rivalry looks like extending itself with the appearance of Eduane Danilo dos Santos, Tchizé’s younger half-brother, who recently generated unwelcome publicity for his family by bidding US$500,000 for a photo collection at an auction in Cannes (AC Vol 58 No 12, Dos Santos’s Cannes do son). Danilo was involved in a new telecoms joint venture with a foreign company but its launch is one of the many projects that has been delayed, and probably terminated, by the recent illness of his father (AC Vol 58 No 16, Luanda uneasy as poll approaches). Many decisions, some of them seemingly not requiring presidential level attention, still need President Dos Santos’s personal involvement before approval.
Banking is another common interest of Angola’s presidential offspring. They may be cool towards each other in public – at receptions and public events they usually sit at opposite ends of the room – but all gravitate towards the banking industry. The main reason for this is that only banks are now able to access the foreign exchange which has become so scarce and is crucial to their lifestyles
Isabel has a commanding role in Angolan private banks and banks owned by Sonangol, of which she is chair (AC Vol 58 No 1, The bad loans bite back). Tchizé has also gone into banking. In 2015 the four known Semba owners – Tchizé, Coreón Dú, their half-brother Tito ‘Tilucho’ Mendonça and Sergio Neto – started Banco Prestigio, which offers only private and corporate banking. Many in Luanda believe the main, if not sole, purpose of the bank is access to the weekly auctions of foreign currency by the Banco Nacional de Angola, the central bank, to which only banks are admitted. Tchizé has invested some $25 mn. in Banco Prestigio, financial sources in Luanda say. She took the funds from her share in another bank, Banco de Negócios Internacional (BNI), we hear. Danilo, following in Tchizé’s footsteps, invested in a new bank, Banco Postal, which opened its doors in September last year.
Semba used to run the state’s TV transmitters but that contract has ended, as has a clippings service which it used to sub-contract to a Brazilian firm. These may only be signs of the forex shortage, or possibly signs of a loss of influence of the family firms.
After the elections, Lourenço will come under pressure to rein in the Dos Santos family’s business empire. How far and fast he goes may be the first big test of his Presidency.
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