Do antitrust settlements require an admission of guilt? Appellate body says “no”, overrules CID

Barring an application for review to the community’s highest court, decisions by the COMESA Competition Commission and its CID (Committee for Initial Determinations) are reviewed by the COMESA Appeals Board (“CAB”). In other words, the CAB is the crucial mid-layer of appellate review in antitrust matters across the COMESA region.

The CAB recently published its important December 2022 ruling in the CAF / Confédération Africane de Football matter. The CAF case is noteworthy in at least 3 respects, says Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney with Primerio International:

“For one, it deals with one of the CCC’s very first cases involving anti-competitive business practices; heretofore, virtually all decisions by the Commission involved pure merger matters.

Second, the CAB ruling is important in that it lays the groundwork for future settlements (or commitments) between the Commission and parties accused (but not yet found guilty) of violations of the COMESA competition regulations.

Lastly, the Appeals Board highlights the importance of issuing well-reasoned, written decisions, on which the parties (and others) can rely in the future. The CAB has made clear what we at Primerio have long advocated for: a competition enforcer must articulate clearly and state fully all of the reasons for its findings and ultimate decision(s). This is necessary in order for readers of the written opinion to evaluate the factual and legal bases for each. The CAB has now expressly held so, which is a welcome move in the right direction for COMESA litigants!”

In an ironic twist in the 5-year saga of the CAF investigation by the CCC, the Commission and the parties themselves had reached an agreed settlement, according to whose terms the parties did not admit guilt, yet agreed to (and in fact anticipatorily did) cease and desist from performing under their sports-marketing contract, which was essentially torn up by the commitment decision. Yet, to the surprise of the CCC and the private parties under investigation, in the summer of 2022 the CID refused to sign off on the settlement, due to the sole (otherwise unexplained) reason that there was a lack of an admission of guilt. The parties sought reconsideration on various grounds, which the CID again refused a second time. These rulings were then appealed — successfully — to the CAB, which quashed the CID’s unsubstantiated determinations and gave effect to the parties’ previously-reached settlement agreement with the CCC.

The full decision — which deals in detail with the CAF’s distribution agreements for the commercialization of marketing and media rights in relation to sports events — can be accessed on AAT’s site, see below.

“We won’t compete on price!” — Telco CEO makes blatant antitrust admission

Today, the East African reported on a stunning admission by the Chief Executive Officer of Kenyan mobile telco heavyweight Safaricom (itself no stranger to AAT telco competition reporting and proprietor of the massive M-Pesa mobile money network across East Africa). In the article, fittingly entitled “Safaricom rules out price war in Ethiopian market“, the business report quotes Mr. Peter Ndegwa as saying:

“From a pricing perspective, our pricing strategy is generally to be either in line or just slightly at a premium, but not to go for any price competition. The intention is actually generally to be closer to what the main operator is offering, especially on voice.”

Safaricom’s senior exec made his curious confession on a recent investor call. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney with Primerio: “On these investor conference calls, there are usually several analysts and reporters on the line, listening in, and they commonly are also recorded. This would mean there exist clear prima facie evidence and several witnesses to these statements, as reported by the East African source.” He adds: “It remains to be seen whether any of the several competent authorities will investigate Safaricom’s express statement of a de facto ‘non-compete’ between the Ethiopian incumbent and the Kenyan upstart,” with the former (Ethiotel) boasting 54m subscribers, as opposed to the latter’s mere 1m users in-country.

POSSIBLE INVESTIGATIONS

When asked which government authorities would be authorized to investigate Safaricom’s “no price war” policy expressed by Mr. Ndegwa, according to the newspaper, Mr. Stargard noted that, beyond the domestic Ethiopian telecoms regulator, there existed at least two (2) competent antitrust bodies with jurisdictional authority: “For any potentially anti-competitive conduct occurring in Ethiopia that may have a cross-border effect (as mobile telephony usually does — especially with a foreign, here Kenyan, operator involved as well), I could see either the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (“TCCPA”) or the supra-national COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC“) under Dr. Mwemba’s reinvigorated leadership stepping in.”

As the latter has made clear in several public pronouncements recently, the CCC is poised to continue its non-merger enforcement streak, that is: investigating and prosecuting restrictive business practices, such as cartels and cartel-like behaviour. “We call it, CCC 2.0,” Stargard adds half-jokingly. He notes that both the TCCPA and CCC have all the necessary legislative instruments in hand to proceed with a preliminary investigation on the basis of the above quotes published by the East African:

In Ethiopia, the TCCPA could argue that “expressly avoiding a price war” is possibly in violation of Article 7(1) of the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Proclamation (“Article 7(1)”), which provides that “(1) An agreement between or concerted practice by, business persons or a decision by association of business persons in a horizontal relationship shall be prohibited if:…(b) it involves, directly or indirectly, fixing a purchase or selling price or any other trading condition, collusive tendering or dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers territories or specific types of goods or services”.

For COMESA, the CCC has conceivably two legislative tools at its disposal: First, Art. 16 of the Regulations (“Restrictive Business Practices”) prohibits all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which (i) may affect trade between member states, and (ii) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Provision is then made (in Art. 19(4)) for the Article to be “declared inapplicable” if the agreement, decision or concerted practice gives rise to efficiencies and the like. Importantly, even though Art. 16 also applies to by-object practices, provision is made for an efficiency defence. Second, the CCC could resort to Art. 19 (“Prohibited Practices”), which focusses on “hard-core” cartel-like practices. Art. 19(2) provides that Art. 19 applies to agreements, arrangements and understandings, while sub-sections (1) and (3) provide that it is an offence for (actual or potential competitors) to fix prices, to big-rig or tender collusively, to allocate markets or customers, and the like. 

DEFENCES

Safaricom and its domestic competitor (the government-owned, former absolute monopolist, Ethiotel) may of course offer — preemptively or otherwise — a pro-competitive explanation for their alleged “non-compete” agreement. However, in attorney Stargard’s view, such defences must be well-founded, non-pretextual, and they would be well-advised to have contemporaneous business records supporting any such defences at the ready, should an antitrust investigation indeed ensue.

“Indeed, it may appear to the authorities that Mr. Ndegwa’s quoted concession of ‘We won’t compete on price’ may be a sign of capitulation or at least a ‘truce’ between Safaricom and Ethiotel,” he surmises, “because as recently as mid-December [2022], the incumbent monopolist [Ethiotel] had threatened legal action against the Kenyan newcomer, claiming that Safaricom had ‘harrassed’ the incumbent’s customers and caused loss of service due to its actions.” An incoming competitor’s attempt at avoiding a civil lawsuit between it and would-be competitors would, of course, not constitute a legal defence to forming a (formal or informal) non-compete agreement on pricing, he adds.

“We have extensive experience counseling clients on how to successfully — and aggressively — defend against accusations of price-fixing, whether the allegations involve tacit collusion or express price or market-allocation cartel behaviour. While the parties here would likely not have a formalistic statute-of-limitations argument at their disposal, given the recent nature of the conduct at issue, I could imagine there being eminently reasonable ways of showing the harmless nature of the conduct underlying the, perhaps misleading, investor-call statements made by the executive,” he concludes.

Zimbabwean leader lauds antitrust efforts

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently exalted the benefits of antitrust law at a joint COMESA-CTC (Competition and Tariff Commission of Zimbabwe) conference for sitting judges, held in Victoria Falls. Below is an excerpt of his oral remarks, given at the opening of the event:

“Competition and consumer protection laws, are therefore, key enablers of free, open and liberalised trade between countries and foreign regional integration. Against this backdrop, these laws must continue to enhance consumer interests and the realisation of our country’s development aspirations as set out in the National Development Strategy and Vision 2030. To this end, under the radar are the cartels, and all those who collude in promoting unjustified price increases, illicit activities and currency manipulation for the purposes of realising super profits.

Andreas Stargard, a competition partner at Primerio Ltd., notes that President Mnangagwa was once a practicing attorney himself, prior to his political ascent within the ZANU-PF party, although the precise history of the president’s legal studies and degrees remains somewhat murky. “As a former legal practitioner himself, Mnangagwa knows that an educated judge is a better judge. Thus, his admonition to the members of the judiciary present at the conference (at whom the event was aimed in the first place) to better acquaint themselves with competition law & economics was timely and meaningful,” he said. Stargard adds: “There is hardly anything more frustrating than presenting an antitrust case — which is usually difficult in its own right — to an uninformed judicial decision-maker, who shows little understanding or interest in the subject-matter, or who dismisses economics as extraneous; you cannot practice competition law without an understanding of economics.”

The president concluded: “In our case as Zimbabwe, competition law and the attendant robust policy frameworks are important towards the speedy realisation of Vision 2030, of becoming a prosperous and empowered upper middle income economy. This aspiration will be attained through an effective empowered and agile judicial system, which strives for fairness and increased efficiencies across all the productive sectors of the economy. It is, therefore, most opportune that this workshop is taking place at the stage when our economy is transitioning from stabilisation to growth. To this end judicial staff must be kept updated and knowledgeable about activities taking place in industry and commerce. Undoubtedly, judges and other related stakeholders remain key to the interpretation of competition and consumer protection laws. The intricate nexus between the interpretation and enforcement of laws across sectors of the economy cannot be overemphasised. The judiciary should also address competition issues that arise in disputes before the judicial system. This is pertinent more so that competition law intersects with many fields hence training such as this one is an essential requirement in modern day competition law.”

Breaking: CCC withdraws its recent Merger Practice Note

An AAT-exclusive first report on this — somewhat stunning — development follows below. More details to be published once they become available in a new post…

On August 8th, 2022, the CCC officially announced the formal withdrawal of its Practice Note No. 1 of 2021, which had clarified what it meant for a party to “operate” in the COMESA common market. The announcement mentions that it will (soon? how soon?) be replaced with a revised Practice Note — a somewhat unusual step, in our view, as the revised document could have, or should have, been published simultaneously with the withdrawal of the old one. Otherwise, in the “interim of the void,” legal practitioners and commercial parties evaluating M&A ramifications in the COMESA region will be left with no additional guidance outside the bloc’s basic Competition Regulations and Rules.

Of note, “this clarifying policy document did not stem from the era of Dr. Mwemba’s predecessor (CCC 1.0 as we are wont to call it), but it was already released under Willard’s aegis as then-interim director of the agency,” observes Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer at Primerio Ltd. He continues: “Therefore, we cannot ascribe this most recent abdication to a change in personnel or agency-leadership philosophy, but rather external factors, such as — perhaps — the apparently numerous inquiries the CCC still received even after implementation of the Note.”

To remind our readers, we had previously reported on AAT as to this (now rescinded) note as follows (Feb. 11, 2021):

The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) issued new guidance today in relation to its application of previously ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory merger-notification rules under the supra-national COMESA regime. As Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio notes:

“This new Practice Note issued by Dr. Mwemba is an extremely welcome step in clarifying when to notify M&A deals to the COMESA authorities. Specifically, it clears up the confusion as to the meaning of the term ‘to operate’ within the Common Market.

Prior conflicts between the 3 operative documents (the ‘Rules’, ‘Guidelines’, and the ‘Regulations’) had become untenable for practitioners to continue without clear guidance from the CCC, which we have now received. I applaud the Commission for taking this important step in the right direction, aligning its merger procedure with the principles of established best-practice jurisdictions such as the European Union.”

New antitrust MoU between COMESA & EEC

No, that’s not the European Economic Community, but rather the slightly less well-known Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), thank you for asking…

The Memorandum of Understanding, signed in late July in Geneva, is designed to allow the two agencies to “cooperate in addressing anti-competitive conduct in their respective regions, capacity building and research,” according to AAT’s old friend and CCC 2.0 executive, Dr. Willard Mwemba.

His EEC counterpart, Mr. Arman Shakkaliyev, Minister in charge of Competition & Antitrust Regulation, said that the future collaboration “opened up new opportunities” for closer interaction and the sharing of experiences and knowledge as to specific investigations, most notably, in addition to the two agencies planning more standard cooperative ventures such as joint conferences or training seminars.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer at Primerio Ltd.:

“This latest MoU represents yet a further step in the clear and unmistakable direction of ever-closer cooperation between enforcement agencies on the African continent that we have seen for a few years now. The advice to be taken from this is fairly simple: Companies operating in more than one country in Africa should take note of this development, as their local ‘competition reputation‘ from one jurisdiction will doubtless precede them in the other, given the information-sharing between African watchdogs, which catches many corporates seemingly unawares…”

Toyota’s distribution & pricing agreements under COMESA scrutiny

Regional bloc’s antitrust enforcer further steps up investigations in the Common Market

By Gina Lodolo
On 16 June 2022, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (“COMESA”)’s Competition Commission (“CCC”) provided notice, as required by Article 22 of the COMESA Regulations (“Regulations”), that it launched an investigation into Toyota Tsusho Corporation (“Toyota”) in case no. CCC/ACBP/NI/3/2022.


Where the CCC has reason to believe that competition in the Common Market has been restrained, Article 22 of the Regulations requires the entity involved to be notified of the investigation, and further requires the investigation to be completed within 180 days of the notification. In this regard, the Toyota investigation was launched following allegations that the company contravened Article 16 of the Regulations. Article 16 (generally covering ‘restrictive business practices’) prohibits agreements that “may affect trade between Member States; and have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market”.


The specific conduct referred to by Dr. Willard Mwemba, the Director and Chief Executive Officer of COMESA — who has revitalised the relatively young antitrust authority’s conduct investigations and increased its caché internationally by following best practices and engaging competition practitioners globally in the agency’s development and capacity-building process — includes Toyota’s distribution agreements with its authorised distributors. These vehicle distributors sell Toyota cars, trucks, and spare parts across the region, within their contractually designated territories. In this regard, the CCC is now investigating suspicions that the distribution agreements violate Article 16 of the Regulations in various ways — they may:
• Provide prohibitions on authorised distributors to sell outside of allocated geographic areas;
• Prohibit authorised distributors from indirectly selling outside of allocated geographic areas through selling to third parties, who they suspect will sell or transfer to another territory; and
• Indicate resale price maintenance by providing prices of Toyota products in the Common Market.

Andreas Stargard, a competition partner at Primerio Ltd. said, “this development shows how ‘CCC 2.0’ is truly emerging as a fully-fledged African antitrust enforcement authority and not a mere merger ‘toll booth’ regulator, which it essentially was for the first few years of its existence. The CCC has come a long way from the early days and is now pursuing abuse-of-dominance cases that it would not have had the capacity to tackle a decade ago”. Stargard observes that the Toyota case is “now the 3rd announced anticompetitive-business practice investigation of the year 2022 so far,” which is an absolute record for the CCC. “We’re talking proper grey-market / parallel-export restriction and RPM investigations here, this is no longer just a merger-fee collections agency.”

The agency invites public comment and further insight into Toyota’s dealings by 30th of July. Interested parties are invited to make comments to the Commission by 30 July 2022.

COMESA antitrust workshop addresses AfCFTA

The COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), under the leadership of its CEO and Director Dr. Mwemba, organised its first “Emerging Trends in Competition and Consumer Law Enforcement in the Wake of Regional and Continental Integration” workshop in Zambia, targeting legal practitioners across and outside Africa. Its objective is to discuss various issues in competition and consumer protection law enforcement at national, regional and continental level including emerging issues such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Michael Currie, a competition partner at Primerio, said of the event, “Great to be participating at the COMESA Competition Commission’s first Workshop dedicated specifically to legal practitioners, hosted here in Livingstone. It was informative, and simply good to be travelling, meeting old friends and colleagues and seeing world heritage sights all in a few days work. This is an important initiative by the CCC as it expands its advocacy and enforcement initiatives across the Common Market. Important topics on the agenda including updates on the CCC’s approach to penalties, settlement procedures and investigations as well as the more robust merger regime in place. Thank you Willard Mwemba for the invitation and congrats on a well-organised event!”

New CCC Chief addresses World Competition Day, lays out future of COMESA antitrust policy

As we previously reported, long-time COMESA Competition Commission executive, Dr. Willard Mwemba, was recently promoted to his new role of permanent CEO of the CCC, after having been appointed Acting Director in February of this year. In this new capacity, he recently gave a thus-far unreported speech on the occasion of “World Competition Day” on December 5th, 2021.

In his short address, Dr. Mwemba lays out the mid-term future he envisions for the antitrust policy under his aegis in the Common Market, as follows.

Highlighting the importance of competition law for efficient and fair markets, with the goal of benefiting businesses (as opposed to being perceived as an impediment to business interests), Mwemba mentions key building blocks of the CCC’s enforcement going forward. These include resale-price maintenance and exclusive-dealing enforcement (around 1-1:30 in the little-known video, which has thus far only garnered two dozen views on the YouTube platform and is not yet published on the CCC’s own web site). He then moves on to merger regulation (2:45 onward), and further discusses the importance of the effectiveness of the actual competition law itself — noting that the CCC plans to amend its Regulations and Guidelines within the next year (3:40). Noting that the CCC cannot undertake this process very well alone, Mwemba highlights the cooperative approach of the Commission, partnering with and relying on other groups and stakeholders (such as the COMESA Women in Business group, OECD, and others).

Mwemba notes that the CCC’s “focus for the year 2022 will be on strict enforcement, especially against blatant anti-competitive conduct and blatant violations of the COMESA Competition Regulations, and in this case I mean cartels.  It is said that cartels are the supreme evil of antitrust … because it robs consumers, government, and businesses of huge sums…  So in line with this theme, our focus for 2022 shall be on cartels, and we shall make sure that we weed out all possible or potential cartels operating in the Common Market.”

The CCC chief concludes his address by saying that competition authorities “are not there to frustrate businesses, we are not the enemy of business”; instead, he sees the CCC’s role to ensure that markets operate fairly for all — a welcome reminder to the southern and eastern African business community to understand and embrace the precepts of antitrust law as an efficiency-enhancing mechanism for trading in the Common Market.

Dr. Willard Mwemba confirmed as CEO

APPOINTMENT OF DR WILLARD MWEMBA AS THE DIRECTOR AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF THE COMESA COMPETITION COMMISSION

 November 15th, 2021  Competition CommissionFacebookTwitterShare

PRESS RELEASE

 APPOINTMENT OF DR WILLARD MWEMBA AS THE DIRECTOR AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF THE COMESA COMPETITION COMMISSION

 The COMESA Competition Commission (the “CCC”) wishes to inform the general public that the COMESA Council of Ministers at its 42nd Meeting held on 9th November 2021 appointed Dr Willard Mwemba as its Director and Chief Executive Officer.

The Commission’s Board, Management and Staff members wishes to congratulate Dr Mwemba on his well-deserved appointment. Dr Mwemba has been with the CCC since January 2013 being its first Head of the Mergers and Acquisitions Department until his appointment as the Acting Director and Chief Executive Officer on 1 February 2021. He has acted in this capacity until 9 November 2021 when his appointment was confirmed. Prior to joining the CCC, Dr Mwemba was the Director of Mergers and Monopolies at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), Zambia.

Dr Mwemba has been instrumental in the enforcement of competition and consumer laws both at national and regional level. At national level, he has assisted a number of national competition authorities in developing and operationalising their mergers and restrictive business practices divisions. At regional level, he has been instrumental in implementing and reforming the COMESA Competition Law regime.  He has written extensively on competition law and is widely consulted on the subject at global level.

Dr Mwemba holds several qualifications among them Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Law from the University of Zambia. He also holds a Master’s degree in Competition Law from Kings College London. He further holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town specializing in competition law.

The Board of Commissioners, Management and Staff members of the CCC have great confidence in Dr Mwemba’s capabilities and wishes him well as he executes the mandate of enhancing intra-COMESA trade through the creation of competitive markets.

CCC draft Guidelines (no. 3/3): Penalties

COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) seeks input on draft guidelines for determination of administrative penalties.

In this article in a three-piece series, we discuss the Determination of Administrative Penalties Guidelines draft, which has been published (in addition to the Hearing Procedure and Settlement Guidelines). The draft Guidelines comment period expired today, 12 November 2021.

The Guideline establishes a two-step methodology when determining a fine to be imposed on undertakings. The first step will see the Commission set a “base amount” for each undertaking or association of undertakings. The second step provides the Commission with the necessary discretion to adjust the base amount, either upwards or downwards, having consideration of any aggravating, mitigating or any other factors (Section 5(1)(a)-(b)).

The “base amount” will be set with reference to the undertaking’s turnover in the Common Market from the previous financial year and by applying the following methodology:

  • The base amount will be a proportion of the turnover and will depend on the nature, degree and gravity of the infringement and multiplied by the number of years of the infringement (Section 5(8)).
  • The Guideline deems the following as aggravating factors:
    • Nature and gravity of the infringement (Section 5(10)(a));
    • Duration of infringement(Section 5(10)(b));
    • Extend of consumers affected in the Member States and any action taken by the company to mitigate or remedy the damage suffered by consumers (Section 5(10)(c)).
  • The Guidelines propose the following base proportion of turnover to be applied:
    • Cartel conduct: a base of 5% of turnover;
    • Other horizontal conduct: a base of 4% of turnover;
    • Abuse of dominance: a base of 3% of turnover;
    • Restraints: a base of 2% of turnover;
    • Consumer protection violations: a base of 1% of turnover;
    • Mergers implemented in contravention of the Regulations: a base of 2% of turnover;
    • Failure to cooperate with the Commission: a base of 0.5% of turnover; and
    • Other infringements: a base of 0.5% of turnover.
  • The following aggravating circumstances may result in the increase of the base amount:
    • Continuation or repeat of the same or a similar infringement: basic amount will be increased by 3% of the amount of the fine for each infringement;
    • Refusal to cooperate with or obstruction of the Commission’s investigation: basic amount will be increased by 5% of the amount of the fine;
    • Where an undertaking is a leader in, or instigator of the infringement: basic amount will be increased by 4% of the amount of the fine.
  • The Commission may reduce the basic amount if the following mitigating factors exist:
    • Cooperation: decrease in the basic amount by 5% of the fine;
    • First offender: decrease in the basic amount by 3% of the fine;
    • Justifications on efficiency and consumer benefit: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine;
    • Termination of the infringement: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine;
    • Negligence: decrease in the basic amount by 0.1% of the fine; and
    • Extent of involvement in the infringement: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine.

A reduction of a fine could be granted, upon request, solely on the basis of objective evidence that the imposition of the fine would irretrievably jeopardize the economic viability of the undertaking concerned and cause its assets to lose all their value (Section 5(21)).

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