By Ruth Mosoti
In December 2019, the CAK approved the merger between two Kenyan telecom firms, Airtel and Telkom Kenya, subject to a number of wide ranging conditions.
The merging parties, however, were not satisfied with the conditions and have decided to take the CAK’S decision on review to the Competition Tribunal. Kenya’s Competition Tribunal was fully constituted and became operational in May 2019 after four members were appointed to the panel.
In terms of the Kenyan Competition Act, any party aggrieved by a decision of the CAK in relation to a merger has 30 days to file for a review of that merger before the Tribunal. The 30 days period commences from the date the CAK’s decision is published in the gazette. Accordingly, although the merger was formally approved in October 2019, the merging parties had to wait until December 2019 for the gazette, containing the CAK’s decision, to be published before a notice for review could be filed.
The Tribunal has a broad range of powers and may overturn, amend or confirm the decision of the CAK. The Tribunal may also, if it considers it appropriate to do so, refer the matter back to the CAK for reconsideration of certain issues.
Turning to the conditions themselves, one of the contentious conditions relates to having the spectrum revert back to the government upon expiry of the merging parties’ license.
This is concerning as it is the Communications Authority of Kenya that issues and renews licences. The spectrum allocation by Communication Authority is an asset in the hands of the holder. Assuming that the spectrum is being utilized in accordance with the licence, ordinarily renewal is guaranteed.
The CAK’s decision that the license must revert back to the government is concerning as it seems to overlap with the Communications Authority’s mandate. John Oxenham, a director of Primerio, says that the interplay and conflict between the roles of competition and communications agencies are not unique to Kenya. In South Africa there have also been a number of issues which have raised as to which agency is best suited to assess ‘competition law matters’. A memorandum of understanding between the South African Competition Commission and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has been concluded in an effort to ensure consistency and enhanced collaboration between the two agencies in this regard.
The CAK’s conditions in this merger seem to be at odds with the CAK’s approach adopted in previous matters. For instance, when Yui exited the Kenyan market, both Airtel and Safaricom acquired Yu’s assets (including licenses). Although Safaricom had a larger chunk of the 2G spectrum, the CAK did not seem to take Safaricom’s market size into account when these assets were acquired. Perhaps the CAK appreciates that there was a missed opportunity.
This is will be the Tribunal’s first opportunity to review the CAK’s decision relating to a merger and it will be interesting to see how robustly the Tribunal scrutinizes the CAK’s decision with reference to economic evidence. As competition lawyer Michael-James Currie points out, unfortunately, the CAK does not publish detailed reasons which underpin its decisions and it is, therefore, often difficult to fully appreciate the CAK’s reasoning or assess whether the CAK’s decision is sufficiently supported by the underlying evidence. Hopefully the Tribunal’s reasons in this matter will be more comprehensive, thereby contributing positively to creating precedent.
Currie also points out that the CAK imposed a public interest condition relating to a moratorium of any merger specific retrenchments for a two year period. The merging parties are appealing this condition as well and have proposed that the moratorium be reduced to 12 months. The role of public interest factors in merger control has been materially influenced by the South African merger control regime where employment related conditions are a common feature in merger conditions. Moreover, two year moratoriums is usually the ‘benchmark’ standard although moratoriums ranging from 3-5 years have also been imposed on parties in South Africa. It will be interesting to gauge the Tribunal’s approach to public interest factors and whether we will see a unique approach to the assessment of such conditions or whether the Tribunal is likely to follow the South African approach.
[Ruth is a Primerio competition law practitioner based in Nairobi, Kenya.]