Resale Price Maintenance in COMESA?

Second Non-Merger Investigation Opened by COMESA Enforcer

Coca-Cola’s Africa operations — recently sold in a majority shareholder exit in late 2016 by Anheuser-Busch InBev (which owned 54.5%) — were due for a major overhaul of the company’s long-term strategic plan to grow its market presence across Africa.  Yet, it is now under investigation for restrictive trade practices by the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”).

This is a first, of sorts: After the CCC’s original non-merger investigation into exclusive marketing practices of broadcasting rights and sponsorship agreements in relation to football tournaments (AAT reported here) ended — or hasn’t ended — with something of a thud (nothing having been reported by way of conclusion thereof), we and the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer are bracing ourselves for the outcome, if any, of the latest COMESA salvo delivered by the CCC to prove its worth to its Board.  (We surmise so as this latest, second-ever, non-merger investigation may have been prompted at least in part by the fact that the CCC’s budget was recently slashed by the regional body, and that the Commission wishes to reestablish itself in the eyes of the COMESA directorate as a worthwhile agency to fund and to bolster).

The COMESA “restrictive practices” investigation into Coca-Cola’s distribution agreements may come on the heels of its (announced, yet likely neither begun nor concluded) market enquiry into the grocery retail sector, similar to comparable market-wide investigations undertaken in Kenya and South Africa; moreover, the South African Competition Commission has likewise undertaken past investigations into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola in South Africa.

Actual or would-be soft drink competitors may have also brought claims of foreclosure to the CCC’s attention — likely alleging resale price maintenance, as well as possibly lack of access to key distributors due to Coca-Cola’s exclusive or quasi-exclusive contracts and the like.  According to the official COMESA Notice, the agency is investigating allegations against The Coca-Cola Company’s African subsidiary (Coca-Cola Africa (Proprietary) Limited) in relation to its distribution agreements with downstream entities in Ethiopia and Comoros, both of which are COMESA member states, albeit historically rather inactive when it comes to competition-law enforcement.

According to the antitrust-specialist publication Global Competition Review, the CCC has stated that Coca-Cola’s alleged restrictive conduct worked as planned only rarely in practice.  Yet, the agency’s spokesperson noted that the risk of anti-competitive effects remained real: “Coca-Cola is dominant in these countries, it is important that they do not abuse that dominance through distribution agreements which frustrate competition in the relevant markets”, the spokesperson said, according to GCR‘s reporting.  The magazine also quoted Pr1merio antitrust lawyer Andreas Stargard as saying that the CCC can issue injunctions and impose fines of up to 10% of Coca-Cola’s turnover in the common market for the year prior to the conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Stargard tells AAT further that “[a]ny agreement contravening Article 16 of the COMESA Regulations is automatically void.  In addition, while the CCC is breaking new ground here (as it has not yet successfully brought any non-merger investigation to conclusion to date), the applicable Regulations foresee not only injunctive relief (cease-and-desist orders and conduct-based injunctions forcing the party to ‘take whatever action the Commission deems necessary to remove and/or diminish the effect of the illegal conduct’) but also fines, as cited above.  However, no such fine has yet been imposed in any anti-competitive conduct investigation by the CCC.”

He continues: “Under the COMESA Competition Regulations, the agency normally has an initial ‘consultative’ time period of 30-45 days to evaluate whether or not to launch a full-fledged investigation.  This period may include meetings with the concerned party or parties, any complainant, or other stakeholders.  Thereafter, if the Commission votes to open an investigation, the latter must be concluded within 180 days from the date of receipt of the request for the investigation, if it was brought by a complainant.  Here, the official Notice provides that an investigation was in fact opened, meaning the clock has begun ticking.”

Interested stakeholders have until February 28, 2018 to issue comments.

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