The Alvaro Sobrinho Affair: Some Important Lingering Issues

Important issues tend to be completely overlooked as soon as the political angle takes over. The most cynical amongst us would be excused for starting to think that after all there may be some “purpose in this madness”

One public scandal chasing the other, it is the “Alvaro Sobrinho” affair which has been making the headlines over the past weeks. We can therefore presume that the facts, speculations and allegations which have been bandied about are by now well known to most readers. It must be said that the whole story had all the ingredients of a real “telenovela” – suspect foreign investor, involvement of the Head of State, politicians, high civil servants, banks, regulatory institutions and above all huge sums of money… 

The uncontested fact which constitutes the backbone of the whole plot is that the main protagonist – Mr Alvara Sobrinho – has been in charge of a bank which has gone bankrupt in Angola. The Banco Spirito Santos, a subsidiary of one of the most important banks in Portugal, went bust causing losses to the tune of millions of dollars to its investors and depositors. There is no doubt that this should have been a huge red flag for government and regulators alike.

Apart from this, all the “facts” which have been published regarding that person are available on Google search. As we write today it would seem that the information available on the Net regarding the investigations and cases purportedly brought against Mr Sobrinho in Portugal and Angola has proven to be unsubstantiated by facts. This raises serious questions about the preoccupying issues of “fake” news on the Net and how responsible journalism is meant to deal with these.

The second wave of “accusations” levelled against Mr Sobrinho has to do with the alleged involvement of local dignitaries and politicians in his business in Mauritius. Here some investigative journalism is certainly warranted and any wrong doing should be brought to light. The nagging and most critical question, however, remains: and then what?

The sad truth is that although similar “crises” linked to what can be called white-collar crimes have the dynamic potential to prompt radical changes and improvements in institutions and processes by destabilizing the existing order, no such changes ever occur in our country.

White-collar crimes are defined as “non-violent, financially based criminal activity typically undertaken within a setting in which its participants detain advanced education with regard to employment that is considered to be prestigious”. Although many such criminal instances have occurred in the country over the past decades, the authors being charged and found guilty is the exception rather than the rule. The principal reason for this is that in each of the crises from the Air Mauritius’ black money schemes down to the implosion of the BAI, through the various cases of Ponzi schemes which have been uncovered, partisan politics always trumps principles over the treatment of the issues involved.

There have been many instances of such behaviour even in the recent past. We shall cite only a few here to illustrate our point.

1. A most glaring example of this attitude is the case of the Financial Services Commission (FSC). Following the BAI affair which has been extremely costly in terms of human casualties as well as reputational damage to Mauritius as a financial jurisdiction, the FSC was considered as one of the weakest links in the sound administration of the financial system in the country. Instead of reviewing and consolidating the organization post BAI, it is exactly the opposite which has happened.

The institution has been under the supervision of an “acting Chief Executive” for the past two years. Being a foreigner without a definitive contract meant that the incumbent was permanently at the mercy of a government’s decision regarding his stay in Mauritius and the Financial Secretary was appointed as Chairman. The Minister of Financial Services and Good Corporate Governance was then the omnipresent minister Roshi Bhadain.

Following the break-out of the Sobrinho affair, ex-Minister Bhadain rather candidly asked what was meant to be a rhetorical question: Do you think a Minister can deliver a licence? Sorry, but of course Yes Minister. Not that we are remotely suggesting that he did. We are only stating that, given the above circumstances, this becomes a distinct possibility. Remember Murphy’s Law in matters of risks and security – what can happen will happen.

2. During one of his press conferences, Paul Berenger has rightly pointed out that filing false or misleading information in an application for a licence from the FSC may constitute a criminal and therefore an “arrestable” offence. However it must be known that only an offshore management company can file applications for licences from the FSC on behalf of their clients who pay hefty fees for the service. The OMC is then responsible in law to take full responsibility for the information supplied to the FSC. It is rather disconcerting that no journalists and commentators have attempted any investigation along these lines in order to assign responsibility where it belongs. That would have indeed opened up an interesting debate about the role and responsibility of OMCs in the process of applications to the FSC.

3. The matter of Banking and Investment Banking licences has also been prominent all along this “affair.” The issue of application for a banking licence by Mr Sobrinho has been put to rest through a communique issued by the Bank of Mauritius some time back. As regards the suggestion that there was an “oral” request for such a licence, the Governor of the BOM would certainly concede that probably every third person whom he meets enquires orally about applying for a banking licence.

The point that needs to be debated is whether the separation of regulatory authority for Investment Banks and Banks is a good initiative or not. Before taking a view, one must understand that what determines the depth and level of regulations applied by a regulator to institutions under its supervision is determined by the type of customers who will deal with the said institutions.

In the case of a bank dealing with the general public, the assumption is that most of them do not understand all the ins and outs of banking and the risks associated with it. They need to trust the institution and the regulatory powers of the Central Bank constitute their main conscious or unconscious guarantee of the sustainability and trustworthiness of the system.

In contrast investment banks only deal with seasoned investment companies and individuals knowledgeable in finance and therefore the assumption here is that the latter are aware of the nature of the risks and rewards and are expected to exercise judgement. The nature of regulations needed in such a case, while still necessary, is obviously less intrusive than in the case of a bank.

The point is that it is most unfortunate that such important issues tend to be completely overlooked as soon as the political angle takes over. The most cynical amongst us would be excused for starting to think that after all there may be some “purpose in this madness”.

K. Kanhaya

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