Rafael Marques, an Angolan human rights activist, has asked the country’s attorney general to revoke the appointment of Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos, as head of Sonangol, accusing president José Eduardo dos Santos of acting unconstitutionally by putting his daughter in charge of the state energy firm, after the shock sacking of its board.
Isabel dos Santos already owns a 25% stake in Unitel, Angola’s first private mobile phone operator, and is a major shareholder in several other big companies in Angola and Portugal.
President Dos Santos, who came to power in 1979, appointed his daughter to head Sonangol in June by presidential decree in a shake-up that cements his dynastic grip on power in the oil exporter. “With matters of natural strategic resources, the president cannot change the rules as he pleases. He must seek a request from the parliament. He did not do that and, therefore, the reforms on Sonangol are unconstitutional,” the award-winning reporter and campaigner Marques said, adding that he has filed three requests with the attorney general’s office. “The appointments as a consequence of these reforms are also unconstitutional as they are illegal. The president uses his decrees to award state contracts to his family,” he said.
Angola, currently Africa’s top oil producer because of supply outages caused by militant attacks in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, said in April it would restructure Sonangol to increase efficiency and profitability.
English-educated Isabel dos Santos is worth an estimated $3bn (£2.09bn). The average wage in Angola is just under $2 a day. In a rare interview with Reuters, the 43-year-old pledged to bring openness and efficiency to the 40-year-old company that is frequently criticised as opaque and unwieldy.
“Our objective is to increase the revenue, efficiency and transparency of the company,” she said. “We want to implement governance rules similar to the international standards.”
State media said experts from PricewaterhouseCoopers and Boston Consulting Group would be brought in to assist in the shake-up at the firm, a pillar of Angola’s economy.
Some foreign oil firms have welcomed the appointment, brushing aside concerns about political motives. “The government has acted. It is clear the direction they want to go. I am always optimistic. I certainly support the direction Sonangol is taking,” Chevron’s managing director for Angola, John Baltz, said last week.
However, one senior Johannesburg-based banker told Reuters the appointment could make it more difficult for international banks to do business with Sonangol, given the perception of nepotism it creates.
President Dos Santos’s mild, inscrutable public demeanour belies his tight control of the former Portuguese colony, where he has overseen an oil-backed economic and construction boom in the wake of a devastating 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. The collapse in oil prices has hit the economy hard, sending the currency to record lows against the dollar, and has seen the government seeking IMF assistance.
She dismissed suggestions it was her family connections, rather than business acumen, that led to her appointment after the surprise dismissal of the Sonangol board.
On 9 June, a group of lawyers led by David Mendes and Luis Nascimento challenged the manner of her appointment, saying it went against public probity laws. The lawyers also presented their concerns to the supreme court.
Angola’s main opposition party, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) requested on Tuesday that parliament open an inquiry into the business of Sonangol.
President Dos Santos, who rarely appears in public or gives interviews, said in March he intended to step down as president in 2018 but gave no reason for his decision and did not name a preferred successor.