Drive out of the centre of Luanda, down the coastal highway heading south from the Angolan capital. Swing past the fort built by Portuguese colonialists on the hill above, and beyond the luxury shopping mall.
Just before the road heads inland there is a lagoon, separated from the sea by a long spit of land. This is Areia Branca, named for its white sands. Until the summer of 2013, it was home to a thriving fishing community of 3,000 families.
Now there is no trace of their houses, only sand, a pile of gravel, egrets, a bulldozer and a police post. “It’s all gone. Nothing is left,” said Pedro Alexandrino, standing near the site of his former home. “Now we are living in horrible conditions.”
Many of Areia Branca’s former residents have moved to the other side of the lagoon, packed on to a tiny patch of land, known as Povoado. Previously a waste dump through which two sewage channels flowed, it has become home to 500 families sharing tiny shacks made of corrugated tin.
Children play among piles of rotting rubbish. Infectious diseases – malaria, tuberculosis, meningitis – are rife.
Alexandrino and his neighbours say they did not move voluntarily. They claim they were evicted in June 2013 by police, local officials and, some say, members of the presidential guard. Their homes were bulldozed amid violent scenes as some inhabitants resisted.
The Luanda Leaks investigation, based on a huge cache of financial records belonging to Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos, suggest her company stood to benefit from a redevelopment of the vacated land.
The Luanda Leaks project is based on a trove of 715,000 emails, charts, contracts, audits and accounts detailing the business operations of Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the former president of Angola.
The files were initially obtained by the anti-corruption charity Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The documents, which cover a period between 1980 and 2018, have been reviewed by more than 120 journalists from 37 media outlets, including the Guardian, the BBC and the Portuguese newspaper Expresso.
She disputes this, saying her grand redevelopment plans, which were backed by her father, did not require evictions. Dos Santos also insists her business relationship with her father’s government was “arm’s length”, and that she was “not financed by any state money or any state funds”.
The documents, seen by the Guardian and other media partners in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), suggest as much as $500m of state payments were earmarked for Dos Santos companies and their subcontractors, after they signed deals to lead what became known as the Marginal da Corimba project, a multibillion-dollar real estate and highway development along Luanda’s coastline.
The project was cancelled by Angola’s new president two years ago, before construction work had begun.
It was one of many ventures critics say allowed Dos Santos and her husband the opportunity to profit from the state in sectors as diverse as construction, telecoms, oil and gas and diamonds while her father was in power.
The couple steadfastly deny any allegations of nepotism or corruption, and say the recent moves by the Angolan government to freeze their assets in the country, over matters unrelated to the Luanda development project, are nothing more than a “witch-hunt”.
In a recent interview with BBC News, Dos Santos said these criticisms were “completely unfounded” and part of an “orchestrated attack by the current government that is completely politically motivated”. She says the couple’s companies are privately funded. “I can say my holdings are commercial, there are no proceeds from public contracts or money that has been deviated from other funds,” she told the BBC.
Luanda is a fast-growing city. Its population has expanded from 1 million in the 1980s to 8 million today, and is projected to reach 13 million over the next decade. During the oil boom that followed the end of the civil war in 2002, it became one of the most expensive places on Earth.
On the outskirts, shanty towns sprawled. In the centre, rival development plans competed for land and finance. The president’s daughter saw an opportunity to bring some order with what came to be known as the Luanda masterplan.
“I was fortunate enough to be a leading consultant in the Luanda masterplan,” she said in a lecture at the London School of Economics. “It’s a personal issue for me.”
Dos Santos talks proudly about her work, but many aspects of how the project was managed, and who stood to benefit, have remained unclear – until now.
Marginal da Corimba was a centrepiece of her vision for Luanda. Drawing inspiration from Dubai, the proposed development involved a string of new manmade islands, linked to each other, and to existing peninsulas, by a coastal highway built on land reclaimed from the sea. There would be luxury homes, a new fishing port, commercial districts and parks. Dos Santos says she started working on the idea in 2012, through her real estate and construction company, Urbinveste. Early the following year, a team assembled to turn her vision into reality.
In 2013, Urbinveste recruited the British architects Broadway Malyan, whose St George Wharf development in London towers over the Thames at Vauxhall, and the Dutch company Van Oord, which had just finished building Dubai’s iconic palm tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah island.
In April, the architects produced their first high-level sketch. The proposed development zone for the Corimba concept is clear from the drawing: it begins at Areia Branca and extends southwards over several kilometres.
Urbinveste’s plan was not the only idea in play for this stretch of coast. Another government-backed project had involved building a highway called Marginal Sudoeste. This proposal involved a road skirting the Areia Branca settlement.
On 10 May 2013, the plans drawn up by Urbinveste and its partners were pitched to President Dos Santos himself, according to a report produced by the local development agency. At the end of the meeting, the report states, “authorisation was obtained for the elaboration of the new execution project”.
Three weeks later, on 1 June, the bulldozers rolled into Areia Branca. It is not clear if this was a direct result of the president’s decision. What is indisputable is that the entire community was evicted.
“We had no warning at all of what was going to happen,” says Alexandrino. “No notice, no announcement, nothing.”
“I’d come home, it was a Friday, I went to bed around 11pm. I saw bulldozers on trucks on the road when I came in and wondered what they were for. At 2am I heard noise and saw the soldiers and police and then I understood that the bulldozers were there to destroy the houses.”
Interviews with those displaced, and material gathered by the charity SOS Habitat for an ongoing legal challenge, describe the alleged abuses that followed: the road to the mainland was blocked and the electricity and telephone cables were cut; identity documents were seized and thrown into the sea.
Those who resisted were allegedly handcuffed, taken to the bridge and beaten. Two youths are reported to have died after being run over. One fell under the wheels of a truck allegedly after being beaten with a club. His body was taken away by police and his family say it was never returned to them.
Residents boarded trucks after being told they would be driven to new homes. But they say they were dumped on the roadside. Those who refused to leave were allegedly driven from the island with teargas.
Unable to get to work for a week, Alexandrino lost his job. His neighbour Talitha Miguel, 41, recalls how, after they had sought refuge in churches and a hospital, the police chief told the community about Povoado. “And living here everything is a problem.”
Their former home remains an empty space. To this day, no developer has built on the land or claimed responsibility for the clearance. An impact study produced some time later for Urbinveste points the finger at the ministry of construction, saying the “slum” was cleared to “pave the way for the ongoing construction work of expansion of Marginal Sudoeste”.
Broadway Malyan told the Guardian it was not previously aware of the allegations of forced evictions and that its work did not include any plans for clearances. At the time the evictions took place, the company said, it had only produced one preliminary drawing.
“Broadway Malyan is committed to operating in a responsible and ethical manner in all work that it does,” the firm said. “We would never propose or facilitate any such unlawful eviction of residents and we do not condone such behaviour in any way nor want to work with any party who does so.”
Van Oord told the Dutch newspaper Trouw, an ICIJ partner, that it was previously unaware of the alleged abuses, but that after making inquiries it believed they were related to the Sudoeste project. The company, which is negotiating a new contract with the government on a revised plan for the Luanda coastline, says it has contacted the Angolan construction minister about the issue of reparations for those displaced.
“We’re trying to use our influence, we think it’s an unpleasant situation,” a spokesman said. “If others don’t do it, we’re going to make our own arrangements for compensation.”
Dos Santos vehemently rejects any involvement in oppression or displacement of Angolan citizens. Through her lawyers, she said “there were never any evictions related to Marginal”, whether in Areia Branca or any other part of the city. She says her development, designed to ease traffic congestion in the capital, would have avoided the need for evictions because it was going to be built on land reclaimed from the sea.
She told the BBC that reclaimed land was “relatively cheap”. “It’s cheaper than to have to expropriate people, so one of the concerns was to make sure that there would be no expropriations.”
Reclaimed land may be relatively cheap, but involvement in such infrastructure projects can be profitable for companies that receive government contracts in countries such as Angola, where much depends on presidential decree.
In January 2016, after several years of planning and negotiations on financing, a decree from President Dos Santos greenlit about $1.3bn of public spending, with the award of two contracts. Under procurement laws in force at the time, public tenders were not always required for state spending.
Urbinveste was partnered with Van Oord for dredging and building the islands, and Landscape, another company controlled by Dos Santos, had teamed up with a Chinese group to build the highway and a fishing port.
A consortium agreement for the dredging stated that in exchange for tasks including the obtaining of work permits, providing security and government liaison, Urbinveste and its subcontractors would keep 30% of the contract – or $189m (£145m).
The road building was potentially even more lucrative: balance sheets and a draft contract indicate Landscape and its subcontractors would claim as much as 50% of the total value, or $328m.
Challenged about how she has apparently benefited from her father’s decrees, Dos Santos told Portugal’s Observador newspaper: “Our law makes the president of the republic … effectively the last person in the government who ratifies all the concessions or licences or other type of contracts … as an Angolan, it would be impossible to work in Angola and find myself in a situation where [the president], at one time or another, would not sign a decree in which one of my companies was working.”
On 15 May 2019, José Eduardo dos Santos’s successor as president, João Lourenço, used his own presidential decree to tear up the dredging and road building contracts, citing “over-invoicing” and “disproportionate compensation”.
All of the contractors contacted by the Guardian deny any suggestion of over-charging, as does Dos Santos. “Allegations of overcharging are false and unfounded,” her lawyers said, arguing the consortium’s proposal represented value for money compared with similar land reclamation projects in Qatar and Indonesia. They said no money was collected from the road-building deal because it was cancelled.
Dos Santos says her overall Luanda masterplan involved extensive public soundings, with more than 40 meetings, presentations, public consultations and seminars. Her lawyers point out that the architectural plans won an award.
But Paulo Moreira, a Portuguese architect who wrote his PhD thesis about Areia Branca and a number of unrelated evictions that occurred during the development boom in Luanda, claims residents were rarely consulted, warned or shown plans before being displaced.
“This is not so different to what was being done in colonial times by the Portuguese,” says Moreira. “The design of the city is just a privilege of a few people who are deciding what is going to happen in a vast area that affects millions of people.”
Back in Povoado, Alexandrino has a message for Europeans working in Angola: “Human rights aren’t respected here. I think that foreign businesses should pay more attention to that.”