Scandal over ‘Africa’s Richest Woman’ finds Way to Hong Kong

Angolan daughter’s huge fortune entangled in court squabble over Chinese joint venture

By Toh Han Shih

A Hong Kong court dispute sheds light on the secretive dealings of Group Sonangol, the Angolan state-owned oil major formerly headed by Isabel dos Santos, the jet-setting daughter of Angola’s former president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who fought a decades-long civil war for primacy that beggared his country. 

Dos Santos’s vast African holdings as well as her profligate spending habits – she is described as Africa’s richest woman – have come under international scrutiny in an investigation jointly by the New York Times and the International Consortium of Journalists, and by multiple authorities over a fortune built reportedly on embezzled state funds. The dispute involves assets allegedly invested globally including the United States, Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore and Indonesia.  

Sonangol’s dispute with its Hong Kong-based joint venture, China Sonangol International, appears likely to haunt dos Santos, who is under investigation by the authorities of Angola and its former colonial ruler Portugal. 

Sonangol failed in its petition to prevent China Sonangol from selling assets under a decision of the Hong Kong Court of First Instance on June 28, 2019. 

China Sonangol owns substantial assets in Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore and Indonesia, as well as 23 Wall Street, a historic building in New York formerly owned by JP Morgan, said Hong Kong Judge Jonathan Harris in his decision. 

The Angolan attorney general, Helder Pitra Gros, announced on Angolan radio on Jan. 20 that his government would “use all possible means and activate international mechanisms” to bring dos Santos, who is abroad, to Angola. On January 20, a spokesman for Portugal’s prosecutor’s office said it would investigate reports on her, Reuters reported. 

Don Santos came under renewed scrutiny after the US-based ICIJ on January 19 made public more than 700,000 emails and documents detailing how she and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, built an international corporate empire estimated at over US$2 billion. 

She has denied any wrongdoing. On January 20, she tweeted, alleging the ICIJ information was “leaked by Angolan intelligence services….to further Angolan authorities’ political agenda.”

Jose Eduardo dos Santos has denied connections to allegations of corruption surrounding his daughter, AFP reported on January 17. Dos Santos, now 77, in June 2016 appointed his daughter as chair of Sonangol. After he resigned in August 2017, his successor, Joao Lourenco, fired her from Sonangol. 

After Isabel dos Santos’ dismissal, a dispute broke out between the Angolan firm and China Sonangol. On October 3, 2018, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance heard Sonangol’s petition, which sought to block China Sonangol from selling assets, appoint Sonangol’s representative to the boards of China Sonangol and related companies, and authorize Sonangol’s representative as a signatory to bank accounts linked to China Sonangol. 

China Sonangol, founded on September 23, 2005, is 30 percent owned by Sonangol and 70 percent by New Bright International Development, a company that is part of a Hong Kong-based web of companies nicknamed “the Queensway Group” after its former address in Queensway district, Hong Kong. 

While there is information suggesting a mysterious businessman named Sam Pa is the boss of this complex web of companies, neither his name nor any of his known aliases appears on corporate filings for companies within the Queensway Group. Wu Wing Chuen, the Hong Kong head of financial crime compliance at HSBC, was quoted in a decision of the Hong Kong Court of First Instance on March 7, 2016 saying that like, a character in a spy novel, Sam Pa’s aliases include Pa Sam Nang, Xu Jinghua, Samo Hui, Ghiu Ka Leung and Antonio Famtosonghiu Sampo Menezes. 

On October 8, 2015, Pa was arrested in Beijing in connection with a Chinese corruption investigation into a former chairman of the Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec, said Wu.  

There is no written shareholders agreement for China Sonangol, said the Hong Kong judgment of June 28, 2019. This reveals the secretive nature of dealings between Sonangol and the Queensway Group. 

Singapore is the jurisdiction where much of China Sonangol’s affairs have been managed and where several its subsidiaries have been incorporated and have bank accounts, said the judgment of June 28, 2019. 

In January 2017 most of the senior management team in Singapore resigned. Sonangol alleged this was triggered by three things. First, China Sonangol encountered “Know Your Client” (KYC) difficulties with the relevant Singapore authorities, arising from its connection with Sam Pa. Second, Sonangol cited the allegedly uncooperative attitude of Sam Pa’s wife or girlfriend, Veronica Fung Yuen Kwan, who is a director of China Sonangol, over the affairs of the China Sonangol. Third, Sonangol alleged disputes between Fung and another director of China Sonangol, Lo Hong Fung, following Sam Pa’s detention.

Since May 2017, Fung restricted Sonangol’s access to information on China Sonangol, Sonangol alleged. 

Whether Sonangol’s allegations are true or not, the fact that the Angolan oil major made allegations against its joint venture indicates relations between both companies are not good. 

It is ironic that Sonangol would resort to the law to assert its claims, despite its dealings with a controversial conglomerate in a secretive manner which was not properly documented. Will further light be shed on Sonangol’s transactions, and what might that reveal about Isabel dos Santos and her father’s previous regime? 

Lawyers for Sonangol and China Sonangol and China Sonangol’s directors did not answer Asia Sentinel’s questions. 

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel