Luanda Leaks and the Turning Tide of Accountability for Africa‘s Political Elites

COMMENT Prof. Dr Thoko Kaime and Lena Scheibinger, 4 June 2020


Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the former president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos ,faces allegations of corruption and embezzlement of state resources after the publication of the Luanda Leaks: a trove of  more than 715,000 confidential business and financial documents concerning Ms dos Santos that were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in January 2020. These papers not only reveal how Isabel dos Santos was able to create a business empire worth an estimated $2.2 billion and become Africa´s richest woman but also raises questions on how to overcome corruption and self-enrichment of political leaders and their family members.

Key Angolan player

Until recently, Ms dos Santos was very influential in Angolan politics and business. In summer 2016 she was appointed director of the state-owned oil company Sonangol by her father.  This appointment already precipitated discussions about nepotism and patronage among the political elite in the oil and diamond rich nation. However, soon after her father, who had ruled Angola for over 40 years stepped down from the presidency in September 2017  Ms dos Santos was dismissed from her post as CEO in November 2017 by the newly elected president João Lourenço. Lourenço was handpicked by his predecessor in an apparent move to ensure the continued protection of the dos Santos family. Yet,  as part of his fight against corruption, Lourenço has not spared members of the former president’s family from prosecutions. Amongst the many allegations against her is the accusation that immediately after her dismissal in November, she transfered $38 million from Sonangol to a consulting company in Dubai that belongs to a friend of hers. In the last decade together with her husband and numerous intermediaries she has set up a network of more than 400 companies in 41 countries which received consulting jobs, loans, public work contracts and licenses from the Angolan government without following procurement rules or declaring her personal interests.

Accountability for political elites

Whilst the case against Ms dos Santos does much to move good governance and rule of law in Angola; it is the signal that it sends to African elites that could be even more significant. Hiding wealth in foreign jurisdictions no longer shields ill-gotten proceeds from the long reach of domestic law. Similarly, managing political transitions in favour of preferred successors is no longer a sure way of keeping state accountability institutions at bay.

This case shows how collaborations between journalists and law enforcement institutions across the globe mean that quiet retirements are no longer a safe bet. Political leaders and other elites who abuse their positions of trust in the hope that they will be shielded from prosecution either by hiding assets abroad or managing political succession should take notice of these changing times.

Thoko Kaime holds the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth and Lena Scheibinger is student assistant at the Chair. They are both scholars of African law and politics.


By Prof. Dr Thoko Kaime

Prof. Dr Thoko Kaime holds the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

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