Is Sonangol Helping Move Isabel Dos Santos Toward Angolan Presidency?

Is Sonangol Helping Move Isabel Dos Santos Toward Angolan Presidency?

The appointment of Isabel dos Santos as CEO of the Angolan state oil company Sonangol is very much justifiable.

She is Africa’s richest woman, and an astute businesswoman. The 43-year old tycoon made a go at business with the opening of Luanda’s Miami Beach restaurant. Today, she is worth $3.3 billion, and sits on the boards — and owns considerable shares — in some of the biggest companies in Angola and Portugal. All in all, the woman is the youthful, established, and market-ensuring CEO that a smart president should appoint to govern a state oil company.

And let’s not ignore that she represents a change in Africa. Her quick rise to the top is the ideal crack in the glass ceiling of Africa’s male-dominated business world. She engenders political appeal and spawns adulation in foreign leaders. Why shouldn’t she be appointed to revamp and invigorate new energy into Sonangol, the state-run giant that accounts for up to half of Angola’s annual GDP? According to the state run Jornal de Angola, the Angola President José Eduardo dos Santos expects Isabel to make Sonangol more competitive, boost profitability and improve accountability and transparency. If she’s successful with Sonangol, we should ask why not the presidency of Angola next?

Understanding the José Eduardo dos Santos persidency

The first president of Angola, Agostinho Neto, died of cancer in September 1979 shortly after his 57th birthday in a Moscow hospital. The ruling Central Committee quickly and unanimously appointed José Eduardo dos Santos as head of the governing party Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and as the country’s second president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A party congress confirmed the appointment in May 1980 and, at 37, dos Santos became Angola’s second president and one of the youngest presidents in Africa.

He was fairly unknown outside Angola, but his nomination came as no shock within the country. He had been a close advisor of President Neto, was a Kimbundu from Luanda— the ethnic group that had dominated the MPLA— and maintained unquestioned loyalty and service to the MPLA. He could not be identified with any specific or rivaling faction within the party.

Dos Santos also assumed responsibility of the growing war between the MPLA and the National Union for the Total Integration of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi and supported by South Africa and the U.S. A ceasefire was negotiated between the Angolan and South African governments in 1984, ending a nearly two-decade war along the Angola-Namibia border. An agreement by dos Santos and Cuba’s President Fidel Castro to withdraw Cuban troops from Angola quickly followed. South Africa withdrew troops from Angola and recognized Namibian independence. The fighting, however, between the MPLA and UNITA did not end until 1989 with elections taking place Sept. 29-30 in 1992 under U.N. supervision. Dos Santos won with nearly 50 percent of the vote against 40 percent for Savimbi.

Angola in 2016

Jump ahead nearly 24 years from the 1992 election and 37 years after the death of President Neto in 1979. President dos Santos has announced he will step down in 2018. He is Africa’s second longest-serving leader, after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The mild-mannered, somewhat mysterious man has held tight control of the former Portuguese colony, where he has guided a remarkable oil-backed economic and construction boom to rebuild the country greatly decimated by the 27-year civil war.

Critics accuse him of misusing Angola’s oil wealth and making the elite — mainly his family and political allies — immensely rich in a country still burdened with widespread poverty. Those critics will highlight that Isabel is the head of Sonangol and the president’s son, José Filomeno, is CEO of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund.

Despite the criticisms, business leaders rightfully say the country’s growth is hard to downplay. An eight-lane highway through downtown Luanda, shopping malls, and numerous skyscrapers can make you forget that you are in a country in its early post-civil war days.

The Angolan economy was hard hit by the sharp decline in international oil prices in 2014, yet sound macroeconomic policies arguably buoyed economic growth with rates of 4.5 percent in 2014 (down from 6.8 percent in 2013), 3.8 percent in 2015, and an expected 4.2 percent by 2016. There is little sign of large-scale political or social unrest, a positive in a country where nearly 60 percent of the country’s population is under 25. The statistics provide the dos Santos family with good material to support their defenders.

Isabel dos Santos as the future

President dos Santos has avoided the example of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whose unconcealed grooming of his son Gamal Mubarak for the presidency played a role in the social unrest that sparked the Egyptian revolution in 2011. But should he avoid grooming a family member?

His billionaire businesswoman daughter is a qualified leader. Her appointment to Sonangol’s top seat is not necessarily a sign of corruption. “She’s not an engineer or necessarily an energy expert but she is someone with a track record of getting deals done,” said Antony Goldman, an independent, Africa-focused energy analyst. “Sonangol was always regarded as one of the more effective African national oil companies, but governance has slipped quite considerably over the past decade through issues where political factors played no small part.”

Isabel studied electrical engineering at King’s College in London. She is young, a mother and can appeal to the large youth population in the country. With her corporate dealings and board involvement highly recognized and appreciated, her involvement in the nonprofit space is overlooked, for example as president of the Angola Red Cross.

Critics will strike at her privilege, but that is a criticism that loses weight if we all easily recognize the names Bush, Clinton and Kennedy.

Critics accuse her of pilfering state funds, an issue raised by investigative journalist Rafael Marques. The movement of money between family members – the president, his son and Isabel – raises eyebrows but does not establish the system as being corrupt. Funds may be owed, if not legally, but to show a dedication to upholding fairness in the system. Lack of evidence of Isabel paying back allegedly borrowed funds from the state, in the current system, does not mean she did not pay. It simply means we have no record.

Analysts like Antony Goldman and other observers of the system will rightfully change their views on Isabel if allegations are confirmed of improper use of state funds and money laundering, particularly within Sonangol.

The Angolan story and President dos Santos’ exit from office is still being written. Is Isabel dos Santos the next president? It is 2016 now and the election is in 2017. It is too early to make predictions or play up conspiracy theories. Maybe she can pull a card from the Hillary Clinton playbook. Remember the 1992 election of another dos Santos. Things changed positively under his leadership. She could also give Angola its first female president.

Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker with private equity experience in emerging economies focusing on the natural resources and energy sectors. He earned a law degree in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and a master’s of business administration in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago. He can be reached at kurt.davis.jr@gmail.com.