Their fathers’ sins haunt them, some now carry the cross for ill-gotten riches

Wednesday January 29 2020

Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the second president of Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is usually called Africa’s richest woman, which is a misnomer. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


When in 1483, Vasco da Gama dropped anchor off the village of Luanda, in what is today known as Angola, he likely was just looking for replenishment of provisions for his long voyage round the Cape Ann on to India. Soon, the Portuguese got drawn in by the lure of other points on their itinerary, including Mozambique, Mombasa-Malindi, Goa and Macao.

Brazil came a little later to symbolise what the Iberians really desired, but Angola remained a strategic outpost for the seafaring adventurers who came and went along the precious sea-lanes. What we know today as Angola was brought under imperial Portugal and kept as a colonial possession until 1975.

It was a sad history, as surely all colonial histories must be, but with singular episodes of brutality and inhumanity rarely experienced anywhere. Obviously, this was before the Belgian pirate-king Leopold II sent his thieves and murderers to the Congo, but the rapaciousness of the Portuguese in Angola was no less abominable …. massacres, plunder, mutilations, arson ….

The story is long and it may not suffer retelling here, but suffice it to say that when patriotic Angolans took up arms in 1961 under the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), led by the poet-physician Antonio Agostinho Neto, the bitter struggle intensified relentlessly to independence on November 11, 1975.

I was in Luanda for the occasion, and witnessed the painful birth pangs of the nascent republic, embroiled in a bloody civil war fanned by covetous neighbours — Mobutu and South Africa — and their international backers. The war created so many monsters, such as Unita’s Jonas Savimbi, a puppet of the Apartheid regime in Pretoria, and produced what was recognised as the largest number of amputees anywhere in the world, because of the landmines that still kill and maim even today.

It is a country of bizarre extremes: The poor are poorer than anything seen anywhere on the continent while the rich are richer than anything seen in Portugal.


Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the second president of Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is usually called Africa’s richest woman, which is a misnomer. She should carry the title of Africa’s biggest female plunderer.

All she did to make all the billions of dollars is to be the daughter of the president, which, I realise now, needs special skills and extraordinary intelligence. Plus, the good manners, because every time dad signed a decree to hand her a sweetheart deal involving lucrative state properties and monies, she had the good grace not to turn her father down.

But how did the father become so corrupt? I know him personally as this young man who was foreign minister when Agostinho Neto died in 1979 and who refused to succeed Neto until he was drafted, quite literally, by the central committee of his party. What intrigues me is, at what moment did he transition from being a reluctant successor to Neto to a militant practitioner of kleptocracy and nepotism?

It is one of those questions about our rulers that keep eluding inquires. Until we find an adequate response to this interrogation, we will continue having people ruling over us who just don’t make sense.

How does one explain a Yoweri Museveni, who went to the bush to fight tyranny and graft, morph into the high priest at their alters?

Or, how did Benjamin Mkapa, whose only claim to fame in 1995 as he ran for president was that he was ‘Mr Clean’, free of corruption, chameleon into someone who could register a business in State House because, according to his recent autobiography, “if the state were to withdraw my pension I think the revenue would be enough to maintain our household” (page 210), which may be a fair appreciation of the undependability of the state he presided over.

Still, that cannot explain the state-owned Kiwira coal mine sale to his family and the privatisation of the management of the state power utility to his brother-in-law, among so many acts for which he typically blames a biased media out to get him (page 202).

Isabel, like Museveni’s and Mkapa’s children, are exempt from the culpability that the sins of their fathers might have brought to hang over their heads. Ditto Leo Mugabe, Karim Wade, Nyimpine Chissano, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi or Teodoro Obiang.

We must blame their fathers.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]