A true challenge to the impartiality of the South African Competition Authority: Eskom and its Criminal Supplier Cartels — Let’s wait and see what SACC does now
By Joshua Eveleigh
Will South Africa’s antitrust watchdog, under the aegies of its relatively new head Doris Tshepe, investigate and prosecute flagrant cartel conduct, when it is practically presented on a sliver platter by one of the CEOs of the (willing?) victims of said illegality…? Andre De Ruyter, former CEO of South Africa’s recently-infamous Eskom, is no stranger to the limelight – this is particularly true, following his scandalous (but not so surprising) bombshell allegations of deep-rooted and systemic corruption within the State-Owned Enterprise, together with ‘senior politicians’.
Even more recently, De Ruyter tested the antitrust waters and emphasised the existence of at least four cartels amongst coal mines in Mpumalanga (the Presidential Cartel, the Mesh-Kings Cartel, the Legendaries Cartel, and the Chief Cartel, respectively) intent on defrauding Eskom by, amongst a myriad other means, engaging in collusive tendering, so as to ensure that one of the cartel’s participants would ultimately be appointed as a lucrative vendor.
While there may not be any definitive or public available evidence, as of yet, the mere allegations of such cartels by the SOEs former CEO should at least raise enough red flags for South Africa’s Competition Commission. In this respect, section 4(1)(b)(iii) of the Competition Act expressly prohibits collusive tendering, forming part of the ‘cartel conduct’ category, the most egregious form of competition law contraventions due to their unnecessary raising of prices – of which may be passed down to end-consumers. Mr. De Ruyter noted that the mere reality that cartel chiefs had ceased posting personal jet set lifestyle photos on social media was evidence of their having been alerted to the risks attendant to flagrant antitrust violations.
Given the current state of load-shedding, Eskom’s R423 billion indebtedness (as of March 2023) and the prejudicial impact that these factors are having on both business and personal livelihoods, the South African Competition Commission – theoretically in charge of cartels in the country — must surely regard the energy sector as a priority. In this regard, one would expect a similar sense of urgency and emphasis that the Competition Commission has recently placed on the retail and grocery sectors, for the focus to be on South Africa’s energy sector. After all, says Primerio partner John Oxenham, “this sector impacts every facet of commerce and consumer welfare. If this was the case, the South African public could expect to see the prosecution and sanctioning of numerous cartels, each allowing for a maximum administrative penalty of 10% of the cartelist’s locally derived turnover as well as the potential for subsequent civil follow-on damages claims as well as criminal prosecutions.”
Oxenham’s competition-law colleague, Michael Currie, opines that, “[i]n the event that the Competition Commission does not investigate and prosecute against the coal mine cartels, such a position would largely reinforce the notion that some of the most unscrupulous of cartels are immune from prosecution, further entrenching the existence of cartels in South Africa’s most sensitive sectors.”
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.
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.
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 , 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.
PRICE-FIXING ALLEGATIONS LEAD TO THURSDAY’S DAWN RAIDS AT MAJOR SOUTH AFRICAN INSURANCE COMPANIES
By Michael-James Currie and Joshua Eveleigh
On 25 August 2022, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) announced that it was conducting so-called ‘dawn raids’ as part of an ongoing investigation into the industry, initiated in 2021. The raid took place simultaneously at 8 of South Africa’s major insurance firms: Discovery Limited; Hollard Insurance Group (Pty) Ltd; Momentum, a division of MNI Limited; Old Mutual Limited; BrightRock Life Limited; FMI, a division of Bidvest Life Limited; Professional Provident Society Limited, and South African National Life Assurance Company (Pty) Ltd (together, the “Insurance Firms”).
Notably, all of the Insurance Firms operate within the long-term insurance market.
The SACC’s decision to raid the premises of the Insurance Firms comes as the result of suspicions that the they had agreed to fix prices and/or trading terms in relation to certain investment products in contravention of section 4(1)(i) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”). Specifically, the SACC stated that it was in possession of information implicating the Insurance Firms in a scheme to share information regarding premium rates on risk-related products and fees for other investment products.
Says John Oxenham, a lawyer with Primerio Ltd., “[a]lthough dawn raids form part of the SACC’s ordinary evidence gathering procedure and is not indicative of the guilt of the Insurance Firms, the sharing of information would enable the coordination of increased prices.” Given that the clients of the Insurance Firms include both natural and juristic persons, the effect of the alleged conduct would have far-reaching and adverse effects on consumers, particularly where those consumers are sensitive to price increases. Continues attorney Oxenham: “In this respect, it would be unsurprising if the SACC were to continue on its path of highlighting ‘public-interest‘ objectives by pursuing the investigation against the Insurance Firms and seeking the maximum penalty in respect of a contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i) – 10% of the Firm’s annual turnover in and from South Africa, for first-time offenders.”
Mr. Oxenham’s colleague, Andreas Stargard, notes the size of the RSA insurance market, and points out that the dawn raids occurred across the entire geography of the Republic of South Africa: “South Africa alone makes up over two-thirds of all African insurance premiums continent-wide! Today, the SACC’s spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed today that 5 sites were raided in Gauteng, 2 in the Western Cape, and 1 in KwaZulu-Natal. This simultaneous and unannounced action is testament to the Commission’s bench strength, no doubt assisted by local provincial law-enforcement authorities, as is usually the case across in antitrust raids across the globe, where the actual evidence-gathering procedure is not only undertaken by government competition lawyers, but rather significantly assisted by local police, sheriffs, or similar enforcement agencies”. Finally, Stargard notes, “it remains to be seen whether this raid occurred as a result purely of the agency’s prior sector investigation, or whether there was (or were) any whistleblower(s) seeking leniency for their participation in the alleged cartel conduct, thus enabling the SACC to pursue a targeted and well-founded raid.”
Interestingly, a U.S. consulting firm, McKinsey, which has been involved with several South African government agencies and quasi-governmental entities, recently published an article entitled “Africa’s insurance market is set for takeoff“, noting that the “African insurance market’s immaturity points to significant scope for growth”:
Africa’s insurance industry is valued at about $68 billion in terms of GWP and is the eighth largest in the world—although this is not equally distributed across the continent. Markets are inconsistent in terms of size, mix, growth, and degree of consolidation, with 91 percent of premiums concentrated in just ten countries. South Africa, the largest and most established insurance market, accounts for 70 percent of total premiums. Outside of South Africa, we see six primary insurance regions in Africa. In the Southern Africa region, 54 percent of premiums are for life insurance. Nonlife insurance, however, plays a larger role in anglophone West Africa, North Africa, East Africa, and even more so in francophone Africa
It remains to be seen whether the effect of today’s raids in the RSA will hinder the predicted “takeoff” of the insurance industry, or assist in its growth within permissible, lawful boundaries.
On 3 February 2022, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”), released a press statement confirming that the SACC has made a referral to the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”) to prosecute FirstRand Bank Limited (“First Rand”), Wesbank, and Toyota Financial Services South Africa Limited (“TFS”) (jointly “Motor VehicleFinance Institutions”) for allegations of a violation of Section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998, as amended (“Act”).
In this regard, Section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Act provides that :
“an agreement between, or concerted practice by, firms, or a decision by an association of firms, is prohibited if it is between parties in a horizontal relationship and if-(b) it involves any of the following restrictive horizontal practices: (ii) dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers, territories, or specific types of goods or services”
Generally, once the SACC has initiated a complaint and found that a prohibited practice has been established, it must refer the complaint to the Competition Tribunal. Wesbank (as a division of FirstRand) and TFS allegedly prevented competition by entering into a shareholders agreement containing non-compete clauses. The SACC press statement provides that the Motor Vehicle Finance Institutions allocated markets because they are ‘suppose to compete’, which means that they are firms in a horizontal relationship. In particular, the shareholders agreement included clauses ‘that prohibit[ed] WesBank from offering vehicle finance to customers seeking to purchase vehicles at authorised Toyota dealerships’. Further, Wesbank was also prohibited from financing specific vehicles, being ‘the “new” TOYOTA, LEXUS and HINO vehicles and any “used” vehicles sold through any authorised Toyota dealership, except McCarthy Group’.
Should the Competition Tribunal indeed find that the Motor Vehicle Finance Institutions violated the Act, Section 59 of the Act provides that the Competition Tribunal can impose an administrative penalty of up to 10% of the firm’s annual turnover for engaging in a prohibited practice. Further, if the same firms are found to repeat the conduct, an administrative penalty for a repeat offence can be up to 25% of the firm’s annual turnover.
Primerio Director Michael-James Currie notes that cartel conduct in South Africa constitutes a criminal offence and respondents found liable are also potentially at risk of follow-on civil damages.
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.
Three years after an intricate East-African antitrust saga involving global European and Asian paint manufacturers, the industry is in the region’s competition-law news again.
By Andreas Stargard
Upon receiving allegations, in 2018, of cartel-like practices among paint manufacturers and undisclosed distributors, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) launched an investigation into the companies suspected of breaching competition rules. These investigations later uncovered that four firms, namely: Crown Paints, Basco Products Limited, Kansai Plascon and Galaxy Paints were deemed guilty of collusion and price-fixing, subjecting the purchasers to unreasonably high prices for various paint brands. The CAK has since revealed its findings to the Kenyan Parliament.
Crown Paints has a flagship brand called DuraCoat, which includes paint products for both interior and exterior finishing (painting and waterproofing). Dura Brands’ exposed collusion with the other three companies sparked fears that consumers had been buying these products at artificially inflated prices. This is particularly significant given that Crown Paints is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and is a heavyweight in the local Kenyan paints market, with further regional subsidiaries in Uganda and Tanzania (all COMESA member states).
Ruth Mosoti, Primerio Ltd.’s Kenyan competition practitioner, notes that the “CAK ultimately found that all four companies were in direct contravention of section 31 of the Competition Act, which addresses restrictive trade practices that prohibit companies from colluding with one another in order to determine product prices, as well as control when and to whom they will offer pricing discounts. The CAK alleges that these are all anti-competitive behaviors that are to the detriment of the consumer as well as other, outside competitors.”
In its Annual Report to Parliament, the CAK noted: “The investigations with respect to three other paint manufacturers and distributors were concluded in July 2019 with the Authority making a preliminary finding that the parties were involved in an anti-competitive agreement on prices, discount structure and transport charges.”
In line with section 36(c) and (d) of the Act, the CAK is entitled to impose financial penalties “to remedy or reverse the infringement or the effects thereof” which may span “up to ten percent of the immediately preceding year’s gross annual turnover in Kenya of the undertaking or undertakings in question”.
Of the four Companies, Basco Products Limited was the only company that did not challenge the CAK’s preliminary ruling and paid a penalty amount of Sh20.799 million. The company further agreed to abstain from committing any similar breaches in the future. While the other subject companies initially appealed the decision handed down by the CAK, AfricanAntitrust.com editorial staff have now learned that up to 3 of the accused firms have opted to settle, having withdrawn their appeals.
It is also pivotal to note that on the 25th of February 2021, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) issued a cautionary note specifically pertaining to the consequences of forming artificial barriers to free trade, such as collusive practices and other horizontal agreements hindering competition.
The CCC — in its recent bid to become a fully-fledged competition enforcement agency that investigates not only merger activity (as it had done primarily so far) but also pursues hard-core antitrust offences such as cartels — made reference to Article 16 of the Regulations, prohibiting “all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which: (a) may affect trade between Member States; and (b) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market”.
The Kansai paint allegations described above would fit the bill, but we shall see what cartel matters the CCC will pursue going forward, and in which industry segments… The CCC has stated that it “…will work closely with the national competition authorities in the Member States to ensure that offenders are detected, investigated and punished”. Furthermore, there is particular focus on “hard enforcement through screening, detection, investigation and punishment of offenders”.
As of January 1st, 2021, Kenya’s competition-law enforcer, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), started benefitting from its new “Informant Reward Scheme” (IRS). The IRS encourages “confidential informants” — often also referred to as “whistleblowers” — privy to inside information about antitrust offenses to come forward and report the illicit conduct to the Authority.
The IRS incentivizes informants with promises of anonymity as well as — rather modest, as we will see — monetary rewards: the CAK vows to maintain the confidentiality of the informant’s identity, and provides for up to Sh1,000,000 (approximately US$9,100 at today’s Fx rate).
Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer active on the African continent, has delved more deeply into the CAK’s enabling “Guidelines” document, trying to ascertain the precise contours of the IRS program. He reports as follows:
AfricanAntitrust.com: “Who is eligible to participate in the IRS?”
Andreas Stargard: “What we know from the implementing Guidelines, and also from Director General Kariuki‘s speech on the IRS, is that only third parties or those individuals playing merely a remote and peripheral role in relation to the anti-competitive conduct are eligible to benefit from the IRS. This means that a 3rd-party customer, or a non-executive employee such as a secretary or copy clerk of the offending company, may report wrongdoing under the IRS.”
AAT: “What about insiders with executive authority, then?”
Stargard: “Similar to Western countries’ antitrust regimes, those individuals can still report illicit conduct by their employers, but they would have to resort to the Kenyan leniency process as opposed to the Informant Reward Scheme.”
AAT: “Understood. Are there other, similar whistleblower schemes in existence?”
Stargard: “Yes. We recently held a very timely webinar with leading international and African experts on the topic of whistleblowing, which I moderated. A recording of it is available on the web. Whistleblowing has become an important piece of the enforcement puzzle for many governmental authorities around the globe, not only on competition issues. In Kenya, specifically, President Kenyatta recently doubled the rewards for tax-fraud whistleblowers, who are now entitled to receive up to Sh5,000,000 ($45,000), and the country’s revenue service implemented the so-called iWhistle portal to allow informants to report tax fraud anonymously.”
AAT: “Speaking of money, what is your take on the amount of the offered reward under the terms of the IRS?”
Stargard: “Frankly speaking, one million Kenyan shillings is a paltry sum. I cannot comprehend how reporting a competition-law violation such as a price-fixing cartel that may cost the Kenyan economy and its consumers billions in losses is deserving of 5-times less reward than an informant reporting an individual’s tax fraud to the revenue service, which may cause significantly less injury to the government purse than an international cartel of corporates…”
AAT: “Strong words.”
Stargard: “I’m serious. Compare and contrast the meager sum of not even US$10,000 maximum IRS reward with the potential 5-year prison sentence liability for executives convicted of collusion! There is simply no comparison…”
AAT: “In a perfect world, what would you change about the Kenyan whistleblower scheme?”
Stargard: “If I had had any input into the process of devising the IRS Guidelines, I would have ensured that the maximum reward amount be commensurate with the economic harm and financial damage done by cartels — in short, I would raise the IRS reward to an un-capped straight-up percentage portion of the fines recovered by the CAK. The more, the better for everyone.”
AAT: “Do you have any parting words or final observations on the IRS program for our readers?”
Stargard: “Well, for starters, it is not too late to implement changes to the regime. The CAK (and the legislature, to the extent necessary) can easily increase the maximum reward, as I proposed earlier. I am certain that it would yield better results than the current Sh1m cap, which can easily be ‘outbid’ by an already-corrupt employer, seeking to ‘buy’ its employees’ loyalty! So, Mr. Kariuki, if you’re reading this interview, I’d strongly suggest considering an increase in the reward.
Secondly, from our international experience, we know one thing about ‘secret’ informant schemes: One key element of any successful whistleblower regime (besides ensuring adequate rewards) is the strictest maintenance of confidentiality of the informant’s identity. I realize that section ‘F’ of the Guidelines assures the public that anonymity will be guaranteed and that the CAK will ‘take utmost care to ensure that the identity of the confidential informant is not disclosed.’ However, as an attorney, I can only say that the proof is in the pudding. We will have to wait for the first proceedings pursuant to IRS-provided reports, in order to determine whether or not the whistleblowers’ anonymity will indeed be preserved successfully in practice. That said, I look forward to advising clients on the many issues that are likely going to arise from the Scheme!”
AAT: “Thank you for your time and insights on this new development!”
As it turns out, some savvy ‘entrepeneurs’ have been able to use competition-law enforcement on the African continent to their personal gain, namely by making misleading — if not outright false — accusations against their competitors, thereby triggering an antitrust investigation, and even causing this venerable publication to report on such. We have been made aware by the initial “target” company (now, as it turns out, the actual “victim”) of the Malawi investigation that one of its competitors in the textbook market had essentially weaponized the CFTC’s investigative powers by launching direct and indirect accusations against Mallory International that triggered the probe. In the end, the CFTC concluded that none of the purported cartel conduct actually occurred.
To be clear and to avoid any doubt: Mallory International was cleared of any misconduct allegation. The Editor has reviewed conclusive evidence of the CFTC’s closure of this investigation in August of 2018. “What remains to be seen is whether or not the agency might use its powers to pursue the perpetrators of this inherently anti-competitive attack of false accusations (which coincidentally also wasted government resources) any further,” says AAT Editor Andreas Stargard, pointing to the underlying nature of such false claims as “quintessential unfair competition that should neither enjoy immunity from prosecution nor escape government scrutiny.”
For background, in our original reporting on this case (entitled “CFTC Investigates Foreign Textbook Supplier in Cartel Probe“), we had written as follows:
In a potential first, Malawi’s Competition and Fair Trade Commission’s (CFTC) Chief Executive Officer, Ms Charlotte Malonda, recently announced that the CFTC is investigating a UK-based supplier of textbooks, Mallory International, for alleged cartel conduct. Mallory had partnered up with a local company, Maneno Books Investments, as part of a joint venture, called “Mallory International JV Maneno Enterprise”. In addition, other companies also being investigated include Jhango Publishers, South African based Pearson Education Africa, Dzuka Publishing Company and UK based Trade Wings International.
The investigation follows complaints received by the Human Rights Consultative Committee as well as a number of its constituent civil society organisations and NGOs. The allegations include price fixing and collusive tendering vis-à-vis tenders issued by the Malawian government for the supply of pupils’ text books. [Editor’s Note: “Contrary to the statements in our original article, the actual complaint by HRCC and FND alleged neither price fixing nor collusive bidding.Its main allegation was that unjustified objections were made to contract awards in Malawi, and that attempts were made to dissuade publishers from issuing authorisation letters to particular bidders. Neither of these allegations was true, and no evidence to support either of them was ever produced. The complaint was dismissed by CFTC in August 2018.”]
The Nyasa Times quoted the CFTC head as confirming that the agency had “received a few complaints about allegations of a cartel and other procurement malpractices, hence our commencement of the investigations to get the bottom of the matter.”
Based on the language of Section 50 of the Act suggests that the sanctions for committing an offence in terms of the Act requires the imposition of both a penalty and a five year prison sentence. Although not aware of any case law which has previously interpreted this provision, the wording of the Act is particularly onerous, particularly in light of the per se nature of cartel conduct.
Section 33 of the Competition and Fair Trade Act prohibits collusive tendering and bid rigging per se. Furthermore, a contravention of section 33 is an offence in terms of the Act carries with it not only the imposition of an administrative penalty, which is the greater of the financial gain generated from the collusive conduct or K500 000, but also criminal sanctions, the maximum being a prison sentence of five years, notes Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney:
“The Malawian competition enforcer, under Ms. Malonda’s leadership, has shown significant growth both in terms of bench strength and actual enforcement activity since her involvement began in 2012.”
The Act is not clear what “financial gain” means in this instance and whether the penalty is based on the entire revenue generated by the firm for the specific tender (allegedly tainted by collusion) or whether it applies only to the profit generated from the project. Furthermore, it is unclear how this would apply to a co-cartelist who did not win the tender. The Act may be interpreted that the “losing bidder” is fined the minimum amount of K500 000 which equates to appox. USD 700 (a nominal amount) while the “winner” is penalised the value of the entire tender value (which would be overly prejudicial, particularly if turnover and not profit is used as the basis for financial gain).
Although the investigation has only recently commenced and no respondent has admitted to wrong doing nor has there been a finding of wrongdoing, this will be an important case to monitor to the extent that there is an adverse finding made by the CFTC. Unless the Malawian authorities adopt a pragmatic approach to sentencing offending parties, section 50 of the Act may significantly undermine foreign investment as a literal interpretation of the Act would render Malawi one of the most high risk jurisdictions in terms of potential sanctions from a competition law perspective.
It may also result in fewer firms wishing to partner up with local firms by way of joint ventures as JV’s are a particularly high risk form of collaboration between competitors if there is no clear guidance form the authorities as to how JV’s are likely to be treated from a competition law perspective.
On 9 November 2018, the High Court in Namibia declared a dawn raid conducted by the Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) in September 2016 to be unlawful. The NaCC raided the premises of PUMA Energy on the basis of alleged abuse of dominance conduct in relation to the sale of aviation fuel at two airports in Namibia.
PUMA Energy challenged the validity of the search warrant and successfully argued that there was no basis for granting the search warrant. Consequently, the NaCC is obliged to return all documents seized during the raid to PUMA Energies.
In June 2018, the South African Competition Commission also lost a High Court challenge where the validity of a search warrant was at issue. The Pietermaritzburg High Court set aside the search warrant on the basis that the SACC failed to demonstrate that there was a bona fide “reasonable belief” that a prohibited act had been engaged in by the respondents in that case.
Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says that the use of search and seizure operations as an enforcement tool is being increasingly used across a number of African jurisdictions. Dawn raids have recently been conducted in Egypt, Kenya and Zambia in addition to Namibia and South Africa.
Currie says while dawn raids have been used effectively by well-established antitrust agencies, search and seizure operations are particularly burdensome on the targets and should only be used in those instances were no other less intrusive investigative tools are available. If competition authorities’ powers are not kept in check there is a material risk that search and seizure powers may be used as “fishing expeditions”.
Primerio director, John Oxenham, points out that the evidentiary threshold required in order to obtain a search warrant is relatively low. It is, therefore, concerning if enforcement agencies subject respondent parties to such an intrusive and resource intensive investigative tool without satisfying the requirements for obtaining a search warrant.
Despite these recent challenges to search warrants, Andreas Stargard, also a partner at Primerio, corroborates Oxenham and Currie’s view that the South African and Namibian competition agencies will continue utilising dawn raids as an investigative tool and in light of the increasingly robust enforcement activities, particularly by the younger competition agencies, companies should ensure that they are well prepared to handle a dawn raid should they be subjected to such an investigation.
Events focus on media & business community’s understanding of competition rules and practical workload of CCC
For two days this week, COMESA will hold its 5th annual “Regional Sensitization Workshop for Business Reporters“, focussed on provisions and application of the COMESA competition regulations and trade developments within the 19-country common market.
Over 30 journalists from close to a dozen countries are expected to participate in the event, held in Narobi, Kenya, from Monday – Tuesday.
AfricanAntitrust.com will cover all pertinent news emerging from the conference. We will update this post as the conference progresses.
Speakers include a crème de la crème of East African government antitrust enforcement, including the CCC’s own Willard Mwemba (head of M&A), the CCC’s Director Dr. George Lipimile, and the Director and CEO of the Competition Authority of Kenya, Francis Wang’ombe Kariuki. Topics will include news on the rather well-developed area of of mergerenforcement, regional integration & competition policy, as well as the concept of antitrust enforcement by the CCC as to restrictive business practices, an area that has been thus far less developed by the Commission in terms of visibility and actual enforcement, especially when compared to M&A. We previously quoted Director Lipimile’s statement at a 2014 conference that, since the CCC’s commencement of operations “in January, 2013, the most active provisions of the Regulations have been the merger control provisions.”
“We have been impressed with the Commission’s progress to-date, but remain surprised that no cartel cases have emerged from the CCC’s activities. We believe that the CCC has sufficient capacity and experience now, in its sixth year of existence, to pursue both collusion and unilateral-conduct competition cases.
Personally, I remain cautiously optimistic that the CCC will, going forward, take up the full spectrum of antitrust enforcement activities — beyond pure merger review — including monopolisation/abuse of dominance cases, as well as the inevitable cartel investigations and prosecutions that must follow.”
The media conference will conclude tomorrow evening, June 26th.
The second event, also held in Nairobi, will shift its focus both in terms of attendees and messaging: It is the CCC’s first-ever competition-law sensitization workshop for the Business Community, to take place on Wednesday. It is, arguably, even more topical than the former, given that the target audience of this workshop are the corporate actors at whom the competition legislation is aimed — invited are not only practicing attorneys, but also Managing Directors, CEOs, company secretaries, and board members of corporations. It is this audience that, in essence, conducts the type of Mergers & Acquisitions and (in some instances) restrictive, anti-competitive business conduct that falls under the jurisdiction of Messrs. Lipimile, Mwemba, and Kariuki as well as their other domestic African counterparts in the region.
The inter-regional trade component will also be emphasized; as the CCC’s materials note, “we are at a historical moment in time where the Tripartite and Continental Free Trade Area agreements are underway. The objective of these agreements is to realize a single market. Competition law plays a vital role in the realization of this objective, therefore its imperative that journalists have an understanding of how competition law contributes to the Agenda.”
Boniface Kamiti, the CAK representative replacing Mr. Kariuki at the event, noted that Africa in general and including the COMESA region “has a weak competition culture amongst businesses — which is why cartels are continuing in Africa, and the level of M&A is not at the level one would expect.” This is why media “reporting on competition advocacy is very important, to articulate the benefits of competition policy and how enforcement activities further its goals, so the COMESA countries may be able to compete with other countries, including even the EU members, at a high level.”
He also highlighted — although without further explanation — the “interplay between the COMESA competition laws and those of the member countries; most people are not aware of that!” This comment is of particular interest in light of the prior jurisdictional tension that had existed between national agencies and the CCC in the past regarding where and when to file M&A deals. These “teething issues are now fully resolved”, according to Dr. Lipimile, and there are neither de iure nor any de facto merger notification requirements in individual COMESA member states other than the “one-stop shop” CCC filing (which has, according to Mr. Mwemba, reduced parties’ M&A transaction costs by 66%).
On the issue of restrictive trade practices (RTP), the CAK reminded participants that trade associations often serve to facilitate RTP such as price-fixing cartels, which are subject to (historically not yet imposed, nor likely to be) criminal sanctions in Kenya. It also observed that (1) manufacturers’ resale price maintenance (RPM) would almost always be prosecuted under the Kenyan Competition Act, and that (2) since a 2016 legislative amendment, monopsony conduct (abuse of buyer power) is also subject to the Act’s prohibitions.
Concluding, the CAK’s Barnabas Andiva spoke of its “fruitful” collaboration with the CCC on ongoing RTP matters, noting the existing inter-agency Cooperation Agreement. Added Mr. Mwemba, “we have approximately 19 pending RTP cases.”
CCC leadership perspective: Nudging Uganda and Nigeria towards competition enforcement
Dr. Lipimile took up Mr. Kamiti’s “weak African competition culture” point, noting the peculiar regional issue that “between poverty and development lies competition” to enhance consumer welfare.
He took the audience through a brief history of antitrust laws globally, and encouraged journalists to explain the practical benefits of “creating competitive markets” for the population of the COMESA region at large.
He called on Uganda and Nigeria to — finally — enact a competition law. (AAT has independently reported on Uganda and also the EAC’s emphasis on its member nations having operational antitrust regimes. We observe that Uganda does have a draft Competition Bill pending for review; a fellow Ugandan journalist at the conference mentioned that there has been some, undefined, progress made on advancing it in the Ugandan legislature.) Dangote — the vast Nigerian cement conglomerate (see our prior article here) — and Lafarge played exemplary roles in Lipimile’s discourse, in which he commented that “they do not need protecting, they are large”, instead “we need more players” to compete.
Importantly, Dr. Lipimile emphasized that protectionism is anti-competitive, that “competition law must not discriminate,” and that its goal of ensuring competitive market behaviour must not be confused with the objectives of other laws that are more specifically geared to developing certain societal groups or bestow benefits on disadvantaged populations, as these are not the objectives of competition legislation.
The CCC also called on the press to play a more active role in the actual investigation of anti-competitive behaviour, by reporting on bid rigging, unreported M&A activity, suspected cartels (e.g., based on unexplained, joint price hikes in an industry), and the like. These types of media reports may indeed prompt CCC investigations, Lipimile said. Current “market partitioning” investigations mentioned by him include Coca Cola, SABMiller, and Unilever.
He concluded with the — intriguing, yet extremely challenging, in our view — idea of expanding and replicating the COMESA competition model on a full-fledged African scale, possibly involving the African Union as a vehicle.
COMESA Trade perspective
The organisation’s Director of Trade & Commerce, Francis Mangeni, presented the ‘competition-counterpart’ perspective on trade, using the timely example of Kenyan sugar imports, the cartel-like structure supporting them, and the resulting artificially high prices, noting the politically-influenced protectionist importation limitations imposed in Kenya.
Dr. Mangeni opined that the CCC “can and should scale up its operations vigorously” to address all competition-related impediments to free trade in the area.
Director of M&A, Mr. Mwemba, updated the conference on the agency’s merger-review developments. He pointed to the agency’s best-of-breed electronic merger filing mechanism (reducing party costs), and the importance of the CCC’s staying abreast of all new antitrust economics tools as well as commercial technologies in order to be able to evaluate new markets and their competitiveness (e.g., online payments).
As Mr. Mwemba rightly pointed out, most transactions “do not raise competition concerns” and those that do can be and often are resolved via constructive discussions and, in some cases, undertakings by the affected companies. In addition, the CCC follows international best practices such as engaging in pre-merger notification talks with the parties, as well as follow-ups with stakeholders in the affected jurisdictions.
Year-to-date (2018), the 24 notified mergers account for approximately $18 billion in COMESA turnover alone. Leading M&A sectors are banking, finance, energy, construction, and agriculture.
In terms of geographic origination, Kenya, Zambia, and Mauritius are the leading source nations of deal-making parties, with Zimbabwe and Uganda closely following and rounding out the Top-5 country list.
The total number of deals reviewed by the CCC since 2013 amounts to 175 with a total transaction value of US $92 billion, accounting for approximately $73.7 billion in COMESA market revenues alone. (The filing fees derived by the Commission have totaled $27.9 million, of which half is shared with the affected member states.)
All notified deals have received approval thus far. Over 90% of transactions were approved unconditionally. In 15 merger cases, the CCC decided to impose conditions on the approval.