2020 is off to a rough start for “Africa’s richest woman,” Isabel dos Santos, the jet-setting daughter of former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, who led his country for 38 years until being succeeded in 2017 by current President João Lourenço. Ms. Dos Santos is at the center of the Luanda Leaks, a series of investigative reports developed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and informed by a voluminous amount of documentation that a Portuguese hacker provided to the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. The reports detail how Ms. Dos Santos used access to the state’s resources for private gain, including by transferring funds from state-owned enterprises to offshore private companies that she and her allies controlled. Angolan authorities have frozen her bank accounts, and last week the Angolan attorney general announced that she had been indicted for money laundering, mismanagement, and other economic crimes, largely committed during her tenure as head of the state-owned oil company Sonangol from June 2016 to November 2017.
In considering these reports, it’s worth remembering just how poor many Angolans are and how battered the infrastructure of the state remains 18 years after the end of the brutal civil war. Angola’s human development indicators are distressing, from infant mortality to access to education to the overall portion of citizens living in poverty. 44% of Angolan citizens don’t even have access to clean water. It is certainly not the case that grand corruption in Angola is a victimless crime.
In one sense, the Luanda Leaks are explosive. They provide an evidentiary basis for legal action, and pull back the curtain on the mechanics of looting the Angolan state and the network of enablers that benefited along the way. But at the same time, they are hardly breaking news. Angolan activists and journalists have pointed out the grotesque nature of corruption in the country for decades, often at great personal risk. In financial and political capitals around the world, no one who has any familiarity with Angola is genuinely surprised by these revelations.
Of course, one hopes that the fallout from the Luanda Leaks will deter others from using public positions of trust for private gain, and that it will shame those glossy international service providers who facilitated graft into a better faith effort at compliance and diligence. But it should also prompt some soul-searching in a wider circle. How is it that, collectively, people around the world had resigned themselves to the notion that stealing from the public was simply business as usual in Angola? What passed for world-weary sophistication was something much more insidious—an easy tolerance for injustice and a cynicism that enrages the people who suffer while elites congratulate themselves for being in the know.