AAT exclusive, COMESA, commissioners, East Africa, mergers, new regime, personnel

COMESA seeks replacement for CCC’s Dr. Lipimile

The COMESA Competition Commission has announced that it is accepting applications for the position of Director of the CCC until the end of October.  Says Andreas Stargard, an antitrust practitioner with Primerio Ltd.:

“The post is currently held by Dr. George Lipimile, the agency’s first and, therefore by definition, most influential chief.  Dr. Lipimile has certainly steered the comparatively young Commission into the right direction during its formative years, notably overseeing a complete makeover of the merger-notification procedure early on in the process, after much criticism of the initial system.

We are curious to see who will replace him in March 2021, as Dr. Lipimile’s term expires at the end of February.  Will it be a true competition-law expert, or will it be a politically-motivated appointment made by the COMESA Secretariat, pushing for someone who is more of a trade lawyer or, worse, economic protectionist.  What the CCC needs now to continue gaining international recognition and respect (from its peer agencies, as well as from commercial parties!) is a qualified antitrust attorney who understands the law & economics aspect of competition practice, and who will apply these principles neutrally throughout the COMESA region!”

Dr. Lipimile

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

Back in 2015, we quoted Mr. Stargard as follows, suggesting a path forward for the agency:

“If the CCC steps up its enforcement game in the non-transactional arena, it could become a true force to reckon with in the West.  I can envision a scenario where the CCC becomes capable of launching its own cartel matters and oversees a full-on leniency regime, not having to rely on the ‘follow-on enforcement’ experience from other agencies abroad.  The CCC has great potential, but it must ensure that it fulfills it by showing principled deliberation and full transparency in all of its actions — otherwise it risks continued doubt from outsiders.”

It remains to be seen who the Director’s replacement will be and which of these topics will dominate her or his agenda, if any.  The Director’s term is for 5 years, offering a salary of between $70,000 and $83,000.  Details on the opening can be found here.  Only Member State nationals can apply.  Interestingly, COMESA member states’ antitrust enforcers likewise posted the announcement on their individual web sites:

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AAT exclusive, cartels, collusion, COMESA, Malawi, meddling, Price fixing, Unfair Competition

Abusing antitrust enforcement for personal gain? Malawi’s Competition Agency Misled by Textbook Competitor

textbooks

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.

 

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, COVID-19, Meet the Enforcers, mergers, notification, public-interest

COMESA antitrust enforcer holds COVID seminar

 

Willard Mwemba

Dr. Mwemba of the CCC

The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) hosted a live webinar today on the impact of COVID-19 on merger regulation and enforcement within the common market in the COMESA region.  The seminar was aptly sub-titled “Challenges and Way Forward,” and the CCC representatives, in particular Dr. Willard Mwemba, did indeed lay out the problems faced by them and the measures proposed and taken to alleviate them.

COVID-related business and national competition agency closures have led to “significant delays in information gathering” from NCAs, third parties, and merger parties themselves.

CCC has relaxed the hard-copy filing requirements for merger notifications.

The concept of non-competition factors (i.e., the public-interest element) was also raised, as there is a “growing debate on whether the pandemic may necessitate changes in [the] substantive assessment of mergers, e.g., towards more lenient consideration of failing firms.”

That said, the CCC emphasized that its adjustment to enforcement actions should not be construed as any weakening of competition principles taking place.  The harmonization and coordination among the COMESA member countries’ agencies and the CCC remain a critical element of the operation of the single market.

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COMESA, COVID-19, East Africa, FAQ

COMESA retains 30-day merger notification requirement during COVID pandemic, but loosens some rules

The COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) has, along with several other competition-law enforcers on the African continent, issued new guidance on timing and other implications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The text of the official announcement is below:  

CCC-Notice-4-of -2020

NOTICE OF INTERIM MEASURES IN MERGER REVIEW OF THE COMESA COMPETITION COMMISSION DUE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The COMESA Competition Commission (the Commission) is aware that these are unprecedented, uncertain and challenging times for undertakings and other stakeholders. In view of this, the Commission wishes to notify the general public and all interested parties that as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic it has issued the following interim processes for merger reviews under the COMESA Competition Regulations (the Regulations) and the COMESA Competition Rules (the “Rules”).

  1. Receipt of Merger Notifications

Parties to a Merger are encouraged to submit all notifications and filing of mergers and acquisitions electronically including certified copies of filings. This therefore means that the parties shall not be expected to submit the hard copies within the specified 7 days under the COMESA Merger Assessment Guidelines. The hard copies may still be submitted by the parties at a later date when it is possible under the circumstances.

  1. Notification of a Merger following a Decision to Merge by the Parties

Pursuant to Article 24 (1) of the Regulations, parties to a merger should notify the Commission within 30 days of the decision to merge. The Commission takes cognizant that due to restrictions of movements and lockdowns in most countries as a result of the CoVID-19 Pandemic, some parties may not be able to gather all the information to enable them complete the notification within the 30 days period provided under Article 24(1) of the Regulations. The Commission is cognizant that section 5 of the Guidelines provides for the notification process and gives guidance to what amounts to a complete notification. During this temporal period, the Commission shall consider the initial engagement with the parties as the beginning of the notification process which shall be considered complete once all the information is submitted. It follows therefore that as long as the parties have engaged the Commission on the notification process, they shall not be penalized for failure to submit complete information within 30 days of the parties’ decision to merge.

  1. Consultations and Meetings

The Commission has suspended onsite investigations and face-to-face meetings with regard to merger investigations. However, consultations and meetings shall continue to be held through teleconferencing facilities until the situation normalises.

  1. Investigation Period of 120 Days

The Commission observes that under the current situation, it may not be able to complete its assessment of mergers and acquisitions that has been notified and yet to be notified in accordance with the 120 days stipulated under Article 25 (1) of the Regulations. This is due to travel bans and lockdowns in most Member States. These conditions shall affect the Commission’s engagements with various relevant stakeholders who are essential in the consultative process adopted by the Commission pursuant to Article 26 of the Regulations. Therefore, the merging parties should take note that the 120 days investigation period may be extended in some cases pursuant to Article 25 (2) of the Regulations as it may not be practicable to complete the assessment within 120 days under the circumstances.

If you wish to seek further details and/or clarifications on any aspect of this Notice, you may get in touch with Mr. Willard Mwemba, Manager, Mergers and Acquisitions, on +265 (0) 1 772 466 or via email at compcom@comesa.int and/or wmwemba@comesa.int.

Further, note that the Commission may update and revise this notice from time to time.

 

George K Lipimile

Director & Chief Executive Officer

 

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, mergers

Pepsi / Pioneer deal carefully eyed by East African merger authorities

As reported by AAT here last month, the PepsiCo / Pioneer Foods mega deal has caused the parties to agree to a number of conditions imposed by the South African Competition Commission, despite there being no material overlap between the parties which give rise to any legitimate competition concerns.

Now, COMESA has joined the field, with its Competition Commission likewise reviewing the transaction’s effect on the common market under its jurisdiction, pursuant to Notice 39/2019.  The Competition and Tariff Commission of Zimbabwe will likely provide its confidential input as to the transaction to the CCC.  According to local news outlets, the proposed U.S. $1.7 billion takeover by American conglomerate giant Pepsi has sent Zimbabwean and other local and regional competitors “into panic mode.”

In the specific context of the Zimbabwean non-alcoholic beverage market, local beverage producer Varun Beverages sells Pepsi’s brands and already enjoys significant tax benefits from its “special economic zone” status.  The local competitors’ concern is that, if Varun also obtains the full rights to distribute all of Pioneer’s FMCG products, it will put smaller rivals at a disadvantage.

Taken together with other regional taxation incentives (in Zambia, Varun had temporarily been granted a deferment of value-added tax and excise duty for five years, which was however reversed upon a finding of likely illegality), the impact may indeed affect the competitiveness of Varun’s rivals.  However, it remains to be seen whether the Pepsi/Pioneer deal itself has any material adverse competitive effects overall, as this is the transaction under review after all, comments legal practitioner Andreas Stargard.  “Besides, merger reviews pursuant to established antitrust law concern themselves not with the welfare of competitors, but with the maintenance of overall competition in the total relevant market.  Just because some rival is hurt does not make the deal anti-competitive per se,” says Stargard.  Moreover, there are major competitors still to reckon with, such as Delta brands, which has historically dominated the Zimbabwean market, and only recently lost market share to Varun, which has budgeted US$150 million in investments over the next five years.  “These investments and the increased rivalry between a potentially strengthened Varun and the existing market leader Delta may actually be considered pro-competitive indicators by the competition regulators, such as the CCC and the Zim authorities,” concludes Stargard.

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AAT, AAT exclusive, Access to Information, COMESA, commissioners, dominance, EAC, East Africa, exemptions, Kenya, market study

COMESA Competition Commission: 2019 Regional Sensitization Workshop

On 9-10 September 2019, the Comesa Competition Commission (CCC) hosted its 6th  “Regional Sensitization Workshop for Business Reporters on Competition Law and Trade Developments within the Common Market” workshop in Nairobi, Kenya as part of its advocacy initiative to promote competition law and enforcement activities across the COMESA region.

AfricanAntitrust, having attended last year’s event, was again invited to attend the event and senior contributor and competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, attended the event on behalf of AAT and participated in a serious of panel discussions and informal interactive sessions with members of the CCC and Competition Authority of Kenya.

Attendees

The workshop was well attended with a year on year increase in attendees reflecting the importance and popularity of this initiative. The CCC should be congratulated on a well organized and structured workshop.

Patrick Okilangole, Board Chairperson of the CCC, opened the event by highlighting the importance of competitive domestic markets to  “realize the benefits of trade; multilateral and bilateral trade agreements recognize the need to guarantee that restrictive business practices do not hinder the positive effects of free trade”.

Protectionist policies was identified by Okilangole as one of the key impediments to effective regional growth and trade. More specifically, Okilangole highlighted the following consequences of protectionist policies:

“(i)     Ineffective competition policy frameworks. Over the past few years, competition law has been enacted in several Member States of the Common Market. However, in some countries, competition frameworks have included:

(ii)      unjustified and discretionary exemptions, for example, utilities managed by the state in key economic sectors,

(iii)     lack of sufficient investigative powers and tools in the current national and regional legislation to deter anticompetitive behaviour,

(iv)    lack of independency in decision making since competition agencies report to and their decisions may be vetoed by a ministry, and

(v)     significant government intervention in markets such as price controls in potentially competitive markets, controlling essential products, margins, and geographic areas.”

Okilangole reaffirmed the true hallmark of an effective competition law regime, namely that competition law should be focused on protecting the competitive process and not a particular competitor. “The rules are not meant to punish large companies on account of their size or commercial success. The key feature of the competition rules is to create a level playing field for all business players in the market.”

Okilangole’s remarks were echoed by the Chief Executive Officer of the CCC, George Lipimile who emphasised the need to move away from protectionist policies in order to realise the benefits that flow from increased regional trade.

Restrictive business practices, particularly abuse of dominance practices and collusion were identified by Lipimile as being particularly prevalent within COMESA and that increased enforcement activities are required, both by the CCC and regional agencies, to detect and prosecute anti-competitive behaviour.

The workshop was also used as an opportunity to present and engage on the CCC’s Guidelines on Restrictive Business Practices (which were approved in April 2019). The objective of the Guidelines is to provide greater clarity, predictability and transparency in relation to the analytical framework which will be used to evaluate alleged anti-competitive conduct. The Guidelines also provide greater guidance on the process and circumstances in which the CCC may grant exemptions.

The CCC was well represented (so to was the CAK) and senior investigators, analysts and members from the executive team provided useful insights into the enforcement activities of the CCC as well as what lay ahead in the pipeline. Attendees were invited to engage, debate and where appropriate raise concerns regarding the efficacy of competition law enforcement in COMESA. It is this willingness to be open and engage proactively with constructive criticism which is perhaps the hallmark of this CCC initiative and certainly welcomed by the attendees.

As to enforcement updates, the CCC put together comprehensive presentations both in relation to merger control and restrictive business practices more generally. We highlight some of the more noteworthy developments below.

Merger Control

Willard Mwemba, manager of mergers and acquisitions at the CCC, confirmed that over 230 transactions have been notified to the CCC between 2013 and July 2019. Of these, 17 were approved subject to conditions.

From a merger trend perspective, the CCC witnessed an increased shift in merger notifications in traditional sectors, such as agriculture and construction, to emerging sectors such as energy, banking and financial services with the most active member states including Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

As to merger activity in COMESA, Mwemba confirmed that there has been a decrease in merger activity in the first half of 2019, largely as a result of a decrease in global activity and that the value of transactions that occurred within the first half of 2019 dropped from USD 527 billion to USD 319 billion for the same period in 2018. This is also consistent with the 19% decrease in the number of notifiable transactions globally.

The combined total turnover value of all mergers assessed by the CCC to date amounts to over USD 110 billion. Although 2019 figures were not presented, the CCC highlighted that total Foreign Direct Investment in COMESA grew in 2016 from USD 18.6 billion to USD 19.3 billion in 2017 representing nearly half of Africa’s total FDI inflows. Again, highlighting the significance of the COMESA market in the global space.

Enforcement Activities

Although the CCC has had an active merger control regime in place for many years, a number of commentators have raised the lack of robustly investigated and prosecuted abuse of dominance or cartel cases as a key hindrance to effective competition law enforcement in COMESA. While the CCC acknowledges that more should be done in this regard, below is a list of non-merger matters which the CCC has concluded in past three years:

Exemptions

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Supreme Imports Limited Lighting bulbs Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Sayyed Engineers Limited Writing implements East Africa
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Chloride Egypt SAE Automotive Batteries Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between John Deere (Proprietary) Limited and AFGRI Zimbabwe Private Limited Agriculture Equipment Zimbabwe
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and the Motor Engineering Company of Ethiopia Agriculture and Construction Equipment Ethiopia
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and UMCL Limited Agriculture and Construction Equipment Comoros, Mauritius, Seychelles
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and Sodirex SA, Madagascar Road Construction Machinery Madagascar
Application for the Joint Venture Agreement between Kenya Airways PLC, Koninklijke Luchvaart Maatscahppij NV (KLM) and Societe Air France SA Aviation Kenya
Assessment of the distribution agreements between Unilever Market Development (Pty) Limited and Distributors in the Common Market  FMCGs DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius,

Determination of Anti-Competitive Conduct: Procedure of Commission on its own volition

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Eveready East Africa Limited and Clorox Sub Saharan Africa Bleaching agents East Africa
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Parmalat SA (Pty) Limited and its Distributors Milk and dairy products Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements between Coca-Cola Beverages Africa and Distributors in the Common Market Non-alcoholic beverages Comoros, Ethiopia, Uganda

False or Misleading Representation 

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Misleading Advertising by Fastjet Airlines Limited Aviation Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

The CCC also confirmed that they are currently conducting a number of market screening initiatives across priority sectors. Following the conclusion of these screening exercises, the CCC will decide whether to prosecute any firms engaged in restrictive business practices.

As part of the CCC’s efforts in detecting and investigating anti-competitive behavior, the CCC has increased its collaborative efforts with domestic member agencies and has established the “Restrictive Business Practices Network” to increase the efficacy of cross-border cases.

Currie Panel Discussion

[Michael-James Currie speaking on a panel discussion on “How to improve the quality of reporting on regional integration and competition law related matters” facilitated by Mr Mwangi Gakunga from the Competition Authority of Kenya]

Conclusion

In light of the tripartite negotiations between SADC-EAC-COMESA as well as the negotiation of competition policy in terms of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, it is imperative that the CCC develops an effective competition enforcement regime which assists and incentivizes free trade across the relevant markets. To do so, the CCC must be equipped with the necessary resources to ensure that it has the capacity to effectively execute its policies.

Despite the significant challenges faced by the CCC, it is encouraging to note that the CCC is taking a more robust approach to detecting and prosecuting anti-competitive practices in the COMESA market and are endeavoring to do so in accordance with international best practices.

If the CCC is able to deliver on the objectives and action items which were discussed in detail at the workshop, then there is every reasons to look forward to a more active CCC in the months to come with interesting cases likely to be brought to the fore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ACF, COMESA, ECOWAS, Gambia, Gambia (The), new regime, state aid

ECOWAS creates functional antitrust commission

While the ECOWAS competition regime is not new in and of itself (it was adopted in 2008), the actual operationalization of the ECOWAS Regional Competition Authority (ERCA) is — its inaugural ceremony in took place this past Tuesday in The Gambia, 11 years after its technical launch (although it was established jointly with the adoption of the ECOWAS competition legislation, it remained non-operational for over a decade).  Its mission is to enforce the multi-national body’s Regional Competition Policy Framework (RCPF).

ERCA’s efforts will be supported by the twin launch of the ECOWAS technical committee meeting of national  trade and competition representatives to assist in implementing the RCP, including both its competition/antitrust as well as consumer protection mandates.

ERCA is a specialized, autonomous quasi-judicial body designed to help promote regional economic growth and competitiveness in the ECOWAS common market.

Andreas Stargard, a competition law practitioner with a focus on African antitrust issues, noted that the ECOWAS rules, while not enforced in practice until now, will reflect more of a European approach to competition regulation, as “they include provisions to evaluate and render invalid certain types of governmental support for domestic champion companies and industries, akin to the EU model of ‘state aid’ rules, which do not always form part of antitrust regimes globally.  This makes sense, in our view, in the African context, however, as most domestic economies on the continent have long been subject to state-owned monopoly enterprises and so-called national champions — one need not look further than the various large African state-owned airlines, for example.”

He concluded that two key issues remain to be seen, once ERCA launches its first investigations and brings enforcement actions: “First, with the increasing number of regional enforcers, how will jurisdictional overlaps be resolved, both regional/national, as well as regional/regional, conflict?  Many ECOWAS members are also part of other African multi-national organizations that have some form of competition or consumer protection regulations as part of their mandate, such as the west African monetary union.  Second, what will the be the degree — if any — of ‘public interest’ considerations that may be in play for the 15-member state body’s antitrust enforcement, perhaps copying many of its African sister commissions’ approach…”

Time will tell…

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AAT exclusive, agriculture, COMESA, event, Kenya, mergers, South Africa, Tanzania

GCR Matter of the Year 2019 awarded to AG deal with significant African dimension

Primerio’s Merger Team First to Obtain Clearances on Bayer’s $66 Billion Monsanto Acquisition

The Global Competition Review 2019 GCR Awards honoured the companies and their in-house and outside counsel responsible for shepherding the massive agriculture transaction through the multi-jurisdictional merger-control processes around the globe.  The Bayer/Monsanto (with divestitures to BASF) merger garnered overall “Matter of the Year” as well as “Merger Control Matter of the Year” in Europe.  The ceremony took place in Washington, D.C., during the annual ABA Spring Meeting antitrust conference.

The legal team advising St. Louis-based Monsanto on all African competition approvals was led by John Oxenham and Andreas Stargard, ably assisted by attorneys in 4 African jurisdictions — South Africa, COMESA, Tanzania, and Kenya.  The Primerio lawyers had the unique distinction of obtaining the first out of dozens of required clearances.

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham, of Primerio

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, Comoros, distribution, dominance, Ethiopia, exclusivity, new regime, RPM

Competition enforcer terminates RPM investigation into Coca-Cola

COMESA’s second restrictive trade practices investigation ends inconclusively

Having now concluded two non-merger cases (the first was an exclusivity issue in football broadcasting and sponsorship agreements, see here), the COMESA Competition Commission’s (“CCC”) second investigation into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola and its distributors has culminated in somewhat of an indeterminate ending.

No fines were imposed, and the Coca-Cola parties agreed to eliminate the price-maintenance clause from their distribution contracts, as well as committing to implementing a generic compliance programme.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., in an in-depth analysis of the short Decision (dated 6th December 2018, but only released recently):

I am very disappointed in this missed opportunity.  The Decision lacks intellectual rigour and avoids critical detail, to assist practitioners or business going forward in any meaningful way.

This investigation began in earnest well over a year ago, when the CCC opened formal Article 22 proceedings against the parties in January 2018.  In its disappointingly short 9-paragraph decision, lacking any degree of detailed reasoning, factual or legal analysis underlying its conclusions, the Commission has now determined the following:

  1. The relevant product market is the sale of non-alcoholic carbonated beverages.  I note that the wording of this definition would presumably include sparkling mineral water, which appears to be an outlier from the ‘soft drinks’ category that is actually at issue here (“Coke,” Fanta,” “Sprite,” etc.).
  2. A relevant geographic market was notably not defined at all (!).  The absence of this key dimension is unfortunate — it is not in accordance with established competition-law principles, as market power can only be measured in well-defined product and geographic markets.  While the decision mentions the countries in which the parties are active, it fails to identify whether each country was viewed as a relevant sub-market, or whether Coca-Cola’s market power (or dominance) was assessed across the entire COMESA region.  This appears to be a glaring oversight.
  3. The CCC found relatively low entry barriers, as well as apparently actual “new product” entry (NB: does “new product” imply products by a new or different competitor?).
  4. Yet, despite ‘non-prohibitive’ entry barriers, the Commission somehow views the mere fact that the respondent’s brands “continued to command a majority share of the relevant markets” (NB: where is the plural (‘markets’) coming from here? I thought there was only a single market for ‘non-alcoholic carbonated beverages’?) as leading to a finding of dominance.
  5. Crucially, the actual conduct complained-of (the vertical restraints, the alleged RPM, etc.) is barely identified and lacks any significant detail.  Paragraph 7 merely provides that there are “clauses which stipulate the profit margins to be enjoyed by the distributors, as well as the commission at different levels of the market. … [and] vertical restraints which constrain the distributors’ conduct in the relevant markets” (note the plural again).  This absence of key information — ‘what were these so-called vertical restraints’? how were distributors constrained in their conduct? — in an official ‘Decision’  by the enforcement agency wholly fails to assist businesses seeking antitrust guidance for operating within the legal boundaries in the COMESA region.
  6. Finally, the CCC’s overall conclusion is rather weak: the Decision states that the Commission merely “registered its concern that the stipulation of prices [I thought it was profit margins?] may have anti-competitive effects in the market [back to a single market?].”  To address these ‘potential’ ‘concerns’, Coca-Cola appears to have voluntarily committed to removing the offending contract language and instituting a (wholly undefined) “compliance program” that exclusively concerns Part III of COMESA’s regulations.

In sum, Coca-Cola seems to have got away easy here: no fine was imposed at all (which could have been as much as 10% of the parties’ COMESA revenues), a limited, voluntary training exercise was agreed, as was the removal of the RPM provision.

The CCC, on the other hand, missed a truly golden opportunity to draft a more well-reasoned decision.  Its 9-paragraph reasoning (which notably concludes with a finding of actual dominance nonetheless!) can literally fit on a single page… Remember: resale price maintenance is considered in many jurisdictions to be a “hard-core” offence, and is often deemed per se illegal.  In this regard, the Decision likewise fails to make any mention of the relevant legal standard under the COMESA Regulations for evaluating the RPM (and the other unidentified, vertical) conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

The flaws outlined above — from the lack of geographic market definition, missing market share data and other highly relevant details, zero explanation of why low entry barriers somehow did not preclude a finding of dominance, use of tautological and circuitous verbiage (“restraints which constrain“?) — preclude this “conduct” case,  notably already a rarity in the CCC’s portfolio, to be a lightning rod for the assent of the COMESA Competition Commission to become a respected competition enforcer.  This was a chance for the agency to be placed on the radar screen of international businesses, agencies and practitioners, to be seen together on the map with its respected peer antitrust enforcers such as the South African Competition Commission — yet, it was a chance unfortunately missed…

 

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, commissioners, legislation, new regime, Uganda

COMESA news: Uganda gets on board, fields new CCC Board Chair

For the small but growing segment of COMESA Competition Commission observers in the world, some recent developments relating to a key member state may have gone unnoticed: the CCC held a training workshop for Ugandan officials, including over 110 ministerial District Commercial Officers, in sensitizing them to competition-law issues, spotting antitrust offences, and catalysing the enactment of robust competition legislation in the East African nation, whose GDP exceeds $25 billion and has exhibited consistent growth over the past several years.

CCC’s Uganda training workshop

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition partner with African boutique firm Primerio Ltd.:

This development of the CCC supporting domestic antitrust enforcement and legislative efforts is not only affirmatively required by the COMESA Treaty, obligating member states to enact legislation comporting with the CCC Regulations, but has long been foreshadowed by CCC officials.

For example, at this year’s region-wide sensitization workshop held by the CCC in Nairobi, Kenya, the agency’s leadership assured me personally that they would undertake these capacity-building programmes throughout COMESA member states, especially those with less-developed competition-law regimes, including Uganda.

CCC Board Chair Patrick Okilangole (Uganda)

Uganda is a key COMESA country that does not have a functioning antitrust enforcement body or underlying legislation.  Mr. Stargard adds that “the CCC’s choice of Uganda as a target jurisdiction may, in addition, also have been influenced by the fact that the current CCC Board Chairman is Patrick Okilangole, a Ugandan national,” whose appointment to the Commission’s Board was recently renewed in July.

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