Cooperation, handshakes & MoUs: all the rage in African antitrust?

AAT the big picture

Significant Strides made to Promote Harmonisation across African Competition Agencies

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

In the past 12 months there has been a steady drive by competition law agencies in Africa to promote harmonisation between the respective jurisdictions.

The African regional competition authority, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), has entered into memorandum of understandings with a number of its nineteen member states. On 5 June 2016, it was announced that the CCC has further concluded MoU’s with the Swaziland Competition Commission as well as the Fair Trade Commission of the Seychelles.

On 7 May 2016, it was announced that nine members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have also entered into and MoU. These member states include South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland, Seychelles, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia.

The SADC MoU was based on the 2009 SADC Declaration on Regional Cooperation and Consumer Policies.

SADC MoUAccording to the South African Competition Commissioner, Mr Tembinkosi Bonakele, the MoU creates a framework for cooperation enforcement within the SADC region.  “The MoU provides a framework for cooperation in competition enforcement within the SADC region and we are delighted to be part of this historic initiative,” said Bonakele.

Interestingly, although a number of the signatories to SADC MoU are not member states of COMESA (that is, South Africa and Namibia, who in turn, have a MoU between their respective competition authorities), Swaziland, Malawi and the Seychelles have existing MoU’s with the COMESA Competition Commission. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “it will be interesting to see, first, whether there may be conflicts that arise out of the divergent patchwork of cooperation MoUs, and second, to what extent the South African Competition Authorities, for example, could indirectly benefit from the broader cooperation amongst the various jurisdiction and regional authorities.”

Part of the objectives of the MoUs to date has largely been to facilitate an advocacy role. However, from a practical perspective, the SADC MoU envisages broader information exchanges and coordination of investigations.

While the MoU’s are a positive stride in achieving cross-border harmonisation, it remains to be seen to what extent the collaboration will assist the respective antitrust agencies in detecting and prosecuting cross border anticompetitive conduct.

There may be a number of practical and legal hurdles which may provide challenges to the effective collaboration envisaged. The introduction of criminal liability for cartel conduct in South Africa, for example, may provide challenges as to how various agencies obtain and share evidence.

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COMESA enters into agreement with Seychelles antitrust regulator

Information-sharing, investigative assistance, and capacity-building at forefront of MoU

As reported by the Swaziland Observer, the Seychelles Competition Commission and COMESA’s Competition Commission have entered, on 20 April 2016, into a Memorandum of Understanding that aims to deepen the cooperation and coordination between the two agencies (as well as the Seychelles Fair Trading Commission).  Republic of Seychelles has been a member of COMESA since its accession to the common market in 1997.

 

image The MoU creates positions of “desk officers” in each agency to ensure that the institutions will cooperate on investigations and share relevant information to ensure enforcement.  It also foresees policy coordination, technical assistance and capacity-building programs.

FTC Seychelles CEO Georges Tirant pointed out that the MoU merely formalises what has already been a day-to-day reality, with the aim of legislative harmonisation and ultimately regional integration.  “I have a dream that all African member states should work together for a better Africa,” he said.  COMESA Competition Commission Board Chairman Mattews Chikankheni said that it would “improve efficiency in day to day processes, remove entry barriers create an enabling ground for small businesses and medium enterprises which will enable economic growth, job creation and reduce poverty.”

COMESA old flag colorseychellesCCC Chief Executive Officer George Lipimile emphasised the need to create jobs and “link industries,” as well as explain the agency’s mission: “We are going to work hard so that competition laws make sense to the people, because a law that does not benefit people is useless.”

Merger Control in Africa: Hot Topic at the 2016 ABA Spring Meeting

Key competition-law conference features dedicated panel discussion on African antitrust developments

By Michael-James Currie

The 54th annual American Bar Association Antitrust Spring Meeting was held in Washington, D.C., during the second week of April 2016 and the AAT editors were there to ensure that we provide our readers with an update on the latest developments in relation to African antitrust issues, discussed during a panel held last Friday.

ABA Africa Panelists

ABA Africa Panelists

Given that mergers hit a global all-time high last year with the total value of transactions amounting to over USD 4.6 trillion, merger control is certainly at the forefront of many antitrust practitioners. The interest in mergers and acquisitions has perhaps gained even further attention in light of the announcement this week that the USD160 billion Pfizer/Allergan global mega-deal has been officially abandoned, despite the transaction having already been filed before all the relevant competition agencies around the world. While the Pfizer/Allergan deal was called off as a result of new tax laws and therefore not as a result of antitrust issues directly, the deal did put multinational mega-deals firmly in the spotlight.

The Pfizer/Allergan deal is not the only mega-deal that faced significant government opposition. It was announced this week that Halliburton’s takeover of Baker Hughes, in a deal valued at USD 25 billion, is going to be strongly opposed by the U.S. DOJ.

It is, however, not only the U.S. Government that is having a significant impact on multinational deals, as evidenced by the Anbang Insurance and Starwood Hotels & Resorts deal, valued at USD 14 billion, which has also been abandoned after mounting pressure by the Chinese government.

From an African perspective, the South African Competition Commission just last week extended its investigation in the USD 104 billion SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev merger. It is widely suspected that the request for the extension is due to intervention by the Minister of Economic Development, in relation to public interest grounds. Although there is no suggestion at this stage that Minister Patel is opposing the deal, the proposed intervention does highlight bring into sharp focus the fact that multinational mega-deals face a number of hurdles in getting the deal done.

‘Getting multinational deals through’ is a hot topic at the moment amongst antitrust practitioners and is and the ABA thought it beneficial to have a panel discussion dedicated purely to merger control issues across African jurisdictions. In particular, the panel addressed some of the key issues which merging parties need to consider, including inter alia issues relating to harmonisation across agencies, the role of public interest considerations, prior implementation and the need for upfront substantive economic assessments.

The panel consisted of a varied mix of panellists from both private practice and government, and included Pr1merio director John Oxenham (he is also a founding partner at South African based law firm Nortons Inc.), economist and former Commissioner of the COMESA Competition Commission (COMESA CC) Rajeev Hasnah (Rajeev was also a former commissioner of the Mauritius Competition Commission and is an economist for Pr1merio), manager of the South African Competition Commission office, Wendy Ndlovu, and Kenyan based external counsel Anne Kiunuhe (Anne practices at the law firm Anjarwalla & Khanna).

The panellists were tasked with addressing a variety of topics: we summarise below some of the key issues which the panellists highlighted, which merging parties, practitioners and antitrust agencies themselves (amongst whom Tembikosi Bonakele, the South African Competition Commissioner was present in the panel audience) should be cognisant of in relation to merger control in Africa.

John Oxenham and Wendy

John Oxenham and Wendy Ndlovu at ABA Spring Meeting 2016 in Washington, D.C.

John Oxenham

John pointed out that from a South African perspective, mergers undergo a robust evaluation by the Competition Authorities and that although the investigation of most large mergers is completed within 60-70 days, the fact that the Commission may request the Competition Tribunal for an extension of up to 15 business days at a time, may result in the investigation of certain mergers taking considerably longer. The risk of a merger being delayed is increased significantly due to the level of third party interventionism, particularly ministerial intervention on public interest grounds.

John advised that merging parties should consider the impact that a particular merger will have on the public-interest grounds upfront to avoid delays in the investigation period as a result of further requests for information from the Commission, or may even amount to an incomplete filing.

In respect of substantive economic assessments, John pointed out that a number of jurisdictions, including South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and to a lesser extent Botswana, requires a substantive upfront economic assessment. In this regard the South African Competition Commission is perhaps the most robust in its economic evaluation of a merger in light of the resources dedicated to its own in-house economic department as well as utilising external experts when necessary. John also highlighted the fact that the South African Competition Authorities rely on oral testimony and expert witnesses are often subjected to substantial and lengthy examination and cross examination before the Competition Tribunal.

On the topic of gun-jumping or prior implementation, John mentioned that the following jurisdictions are examples of countries which do not require notification prior to implementing the transaction – in other words, they are not suspensory:

  1. Malawi
  2. Senegal
  3. Mauritius

Whereas the following countries do require notification prior to implementation (suspensory merger control jurisdictions):

  1. South Africa
  2. Swaziland
  3. Zambia
  4. Botswana

On harmonisation, John confirmed that in relation to public interest considerations in merger control, the South African competition authorities play a leading role on the African continent and pointed out that in addition to Kenya and Tanzania, Namibia also considers public interest considerations and that there is a substantial amount of collaboration and information sharing between the South African and Namibian competition authorities, as was the case in the Walmart/Massmart deal.

Despite the information sharing between agencies, John confirmed that there are rules in place to protect confidential and legally privileged information and that the South African competition authorities are cognisant and respectful of these provisions.

Rajeev Hasnah

Rajeev Hasnah, Pr1merio economist and former COMESA Competition Commissioner

Rajeev Hasnah, Pr1merio economist and former COMESA Competition Commissioner, and Anne Kiunuhe from Kenya

Rajeev noted the significant progress which the COMESA CC has made in relation to merger control by publishing financial thresholds for mandatorily notifiable transactions and specified filing fees, as well as publishing guidelines which clarify when a merger will have a sufficient regional dimension to fall within the COMESA CC’s jurisdiction.

On the topic of harmonisation, Rajeev discussed the challenges due to a lack of harmonisation between COMESA and its member states and noted that COMESA does not have exclusive jurisdiction in the cases which do fall within its jurisdiction. Parties, therefore, may find themselves being required to file a merger both before the COMESA CC as well as before the respective national authorities. A further challenge facing the COMESA CC is that there are 19 member states and consequently, the relevant geographic market is significant. Accordingly, often the national authorities are best placed to evaluate a merger and will therefore defer the evaluation of the merger to the relevant national authority.

On the role of economic assessments, Rajeev stated that an economic assessment underlies any merger evaluation and that both the Mauritius Competition Commission and the COMESA Competition Commission conducts a comprehensive economic assessment of a merger.

Wendy Ndlovu

When asked on what role public interest considerations play in merger control in terms of the South African competition regime, Wendy indicated that the framework of the Competition Act specifically requires the competition authorities to consider the impact that a merger may have on the four specified public interest provisions contained in the Act. Wendy confirmed that an evaluation of public interest considerations may both justify a merger despite the merger likely being likely to cause a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in the market, alternatively, public interest considerations may lead to a prohibition or the imposition of conditions on a merger which raises no competition law concerns and may in fact be pro-competitive.

Wendy recognised that there is a need, however, for greater certainty in respect to the manner in which the South African authorities evaluate public interest considerations and pointed out that the Competition Commission is likely to finalise and publish its guidelines on the public interest assessment in an effort to promote greater certainty.

On prior the issue of prior implementation, Wendy pointed out that merging parties need to be mindful of the consequences of gun-jumping and noted that the South African Competition Tribunal has imposed administrative penalties, as in the Netcare case, on parties for failing to notify a mandatorily notifiable transaction.

Anne Kiunuhe

Anne discussed the Competition Authority of Kenya’s (CAK) willingness to focus not only on merger control but has also identified the CAK’s increasing tendency to investigate and prosecute firms engaged in restrictive practices (as demonstrated by the recent dawn raids conducted by the CAK in the fertiliser industry). Despite the CAK’s growing confidence, Anne pointed out that in respect of merger control, the CAK is open to and in fact often relies on precedent from foreign jurisdictions when evaluating a merger. In particular, Anne noted that public interest grounds are specifically considered during the merger review procedure and that in this respect, the CAK largely takes the lead from the South African competition authorities.

From a practical perspective, Anne mentioned that the CAK usually requests a meeting with the merging parties soon after a transaction has been notified, and that usually representatives from the merging parties, along with local external legal counsel, should be present. The CAK prefers that the representatives present should be the best placed to answer or address the CAK’s queries. This often necessitates representatives from the parent company being present as opposed to representatives from the subsidiary entities only.

The direct contact between the CAK and the merging parties is quite different from the manner in which the COMESA CC evaluates mergers where the consideration of a merger is done solely on the papers and any communication between the COMESA CC and the merging parties is done through the merging parties’ local external counsel.

As to legislative developments, Anne pointed out that the merger regulations in Kenya now provide that for purposes of establishing a “change of control”, it is sufficient if the acquiring firm is able to materially influence the commercial decisions of the target firm. Accordingly, the acquisition of a minority shareholding for instance may constitute a change of control if the holders of such shares may for instance exercise veto rights.

On COMESA, Anne mentioned that the COMESA CC permits merging parties to seek a comfort letter when unsure as to whether a merger requires filing and that the use of comfort letters has been rather prevalent.

Conclusion

The role of public interest considerations in merger control was a dominant focus point throughout the panel discussion due to this unique aspect in a growing number of African jurisdictions merger control provisions.

Please click on the following link to access a an article on the role of public  interest considerations in merger control in South Africa, which addresses in particular, the impact of ministerial intervention in merger proceedings and the concomitant impact which such intervention has on the costs, timing and certainty of merger proceedings.

The Big Picture: Market-Sector Inquiries in Africa

AAT the big picture

Market Inquiries in Africa – An Overview

By AAT guest author, Michael-James Currie.

Most African jurisdictions with competition laws have included provisions in their respective legislations that allow the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Market inquiries have proved to be useful tools for competition agencies in numerous jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, and is becoming a common and increasingly popular tool amongst an number of African agencies as well.

Despite the benefits that may flow from a market inquiry, it is important that competition agencies appreciate and have due regard to the costs associated with such inquiries. Market inquiries are very time consuming and onerous for market participants and should be used sparingly. Having said that, the focus of market inquiries in most African jurisdictions tend to be on markets which the relevant authorities have identified as having a large impact on consumers.

In other words, socio-economic considerations appear to be a significant factor during the screening process used in deciding whether to institute a market inquiry. Sectors such as food, healthcare and banking (at an individual consumer level) are some of the common industries which have been ‘prioritised’ or identified as important sectors.

While the number of market inquiries which have been concluded on the African continent is limited, as competition agencies gain more expertise and confidence in their mandates, there is likely to be a significant increase in the number of market inquiries instituted and firms conducting business in Africa, particularly within ‘priority’ sectors, should be cognisant of this.

We set out below a brief overview of the market inquiries which are currently being conducted in the various African jurisdictions.

South Africa

There are currently three market inquiries which are underway, one into the private healthcare sector and the other into the grocery retail market. The third market inquiry is in the liquefied petroleum gas sector.

The private healthcare inquiry was launched on the basis that cost of private health care in South Africa is a concern to the competition authorities. A revised statement of Issues for public comment was announced on 11 February 2016 and comments are to be submitted by 11 March 2016.

The grocery retail inquiry is focussed largely on the stricture of the market and the ability of smaller or informal retailers to compete, but will also address issues such as “long term lease” clauses (which has already been adjudicated upon by the Competition Tribunal).

The third market inquiry is into the LPG which was launched in August 2014 is expected to conclude in March 2016.

The only previous market inquiry concluded in South Africa was into the banking sector. This inquiry was conducted on an informal basis as there were no formal legislative powers bestowed on the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Swaziland

The Swaziland Competition Commission (SCC) announced in January 2016 that a market inquiry has been launched into the retail banking sector. The SCC stated that retail banking service offered to consumers, micro and medium enterprises remained the most important sub-sector of banking. It is, however, the ‘current account’ which is the central product to be used as the starting point for the inquiry.

Zambia

On 1 February 2016, the Zambian Competition Authority (CCPC) announced that it will be conducting a market inquiry into the vehicle towing industry. While the CCPC indicated that it wishes to understand the “conditions of competition in the market”, although the inquiry came about as the CCPC had received numerous complaints from consumers that emergency towing operators were charging high prices. It remains to be seen whether this inquiry is focused predominantly on competition-law issues, or rather consumer-protection laws.

Botswana

The Competition Authority in Botswana (CA) is currently underway with a market inquiry into the grocery retail sector, focusing on shopping malls and in particular, the impact of long term exclusivity leases on competition in the market.

COMESA

Consistent with the competition authorities of South Africa and Botswana, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) has also launched an investigation into the impact that shopping malls have on competition. The CCC announced that it will carry out their inquiry by taking samples from the member states.

We have previously published articles on the announcement of this market inquiry on AAT which can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://africanantitrust.com/category/market-study/

COMESA acknowledges low merger filing stats

2015 figures plummet 66% year-over-year

Going from 44 notifications in 2014 to 15 filings last year, the Competition Commission of the COMESA common-market area has seen a dramatic decline in merger filings.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with Africa advisory firm Pr1merio:

“These statistics are akin to the agency’s inaugural year — a slump that can only be explained by one of two likely underlying rationales:

Andreas Stargard, editor

A. Stargard

(1) Potential filers have begun to follow widespread advice from legal counsel that effectively admonishes would-be notifying parties not to do so until COMESA establishes a more robust enforcement and notification regime; or (2) — and this is the CCC’s preferred official explanation — the increased filing thresholds as of March 2015 caused fewer transactions to be caught in the mandatory filing net of the regulator.”

Of further concern, Stargard notes, is that the supporting merger documents made available by the CCC do not reflect the purported official statistics.  This fact is reflected in the MergerMania article published on AAT last August..  “For each and every one of the 15 filings identified by the Commission in its official statement, we should be able to see the underlying SOM [statement of merger] and the concomitant Decision — ideally published contemporaneously with the occurrence of each relevant event,” he says.  “Unfortunately, on the CCC merger site, two merger filings are missing entirely (numbers 9 and 10), and the others are commonly published many months after the public-comment deadline for the transactions has long expired.”

To date, a parsing of the (available) 2015 statistics shows that 3 of 15 cases actually went into Phase Two review, Stargard observes.  “This would generally imply a more serious concern raised by the authority in terms of the effect on competition post-merger.  Here, however, it is quite unclear what the potential threat to competition in, for example, a purely private-equity deal would be.  The official decision (no. 15, from November 2015) fails to even hint at a possible threat — as one would commonly expect from a PE to PE transaction, which usually raises little to no antitrust eyebrows…”

Our updated AAT COMESA MergerMania statistics are therefore as follows (again noting the fact that AAT bases its count on only the official, published and available merger documents, instead of relying on mere press release-based summaries published by the CCC).  We also note that to date, 2016 has seen one “merger inquiry notice,” namely of the Dutch Yara / Zambian Greenbelt fertiliser deal.  The public-comment period for that transaction expires on January 22, 2016.

Number of merger notifications based on CCC-published notices

Number of merger notifications based on CCC-published notices

The full text of the COMESA release follows below:

During the year 2015, the Commission assessed and cleared 15 merger transactions. The transactions involved sectors such as insurance, food additives, water treatment, agro-chemical, banking, telecommunication, non alcohol-ic beverage, publishing, packaging and retail. The Commission handled 12 merger notifications in the year 2013 and 44 merger notifications in the year 2014. The Pie Chart below shows the number of mergers handled by the Commission from inception to date.

COMESA merger statistics (official graphic)

As shown in the pie chart the Commission dealt with more mergers in 2014 as compared to 2013 but this trend has gone down in 2015. This trend may be attributed to the supposition that in 2013, the Commission had just commenced operations and therefore some stakeholders were not immediately aware of its existence and operations. By 2014, most stake-holders had become aware of the Commission and its operations, hence the significant increase in the number of mergers notified. The significant reduction in 2015 can be attributed to the supposition that the merger notification thresholds approved by the Council of Ministers on 26 March 2015 which has resulted in smaller mergers escaping the notification. Before 26 March 2015, the merger notification thresholds were Zero hence all mergers were notifiable regardless of size.

Two new COMESA competition commissioners seated

COMESA grows to 11-member Commission

Numerous in personnel, yet still displaying a dearth of actual case-law development even in merely the one area in which the COMESA Competition Commission has been active — mergers — the agency recently appointed two new (indeed, additional, as the number grew from 9 to 11) Commissioners for the standard term of three years.

Competition practitioner John Oxenham, a director at Africa consultancy Pr1merio, identified them as Trudon Nzembela Kalala from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kowlessur Deshmuk, Executive Director of the Competition Commission of Mauritius.  Oxenham notes that neither country enjoyed representation between the April announcement of 4 new commissioners and December 8 (see also April 15 AAT story on the agency’s prior appointments).

COMESA's 18th Summit in Ethiopia

Name Member State
Ali Mohammed Afkada Djibouti
Trudon Nzembela Kalala DRC
Amira Abdel Ghaffar Egypt
Merkebu Zeleke Sime Ethiopia
Francis Kariuki Kenya
Matthews Chikankheni Malawi
Kowlessur Deshmuk Mauritius
Georges Emmanuel Jude Tirant Seychelles
Thabisile Langa Swaziland
Patrick Okilangole Uganda
Chilufya Sampa Zambia

First set of Merger Assessment Guidelines made available by CFTC

Malawi Releases 2015 ‘Merger Assessment Guidelines’

By Michael J. Currie

A number of African jurisdictions have recently published guidelines relating to merger control (which we have reported here on Africanantitrust). During 2015, Malawi’s Competition and Fair Trading Commission (“CFTC”whose web site appears to be down at the time of publication (http://www.cftc.mw), followed suit and published Merger Assessment Guidelines in 2015 (“Guidelines”) in order to provide some guidance as to how the CFTC will evaluate mergers in terms of the Competition and Fair Trading Act (“Act”).

malawi

Most significantly, the Guidelines have not catered for mandatorily notifiable merger thresholds which is unfortunate as most competition agencies as well as advocacy groups have recognised that financial thresholds is an important requirement to ensure that merger control regimes are not overly burdensome on merging parties.

Furthermore, the COMESA Competition Commission, to which Malawi is a member, published merger notification thresholds in 2015 in line with international best practice. It would be encouraged that the CFTC considers likewise publishing thresholds.

Other than the absence of any thresholds, the Guidelines contain substantively similar content to most merger control guidelines insofar as they set out the broad and general approach that the CFTC will take when evaluating a merger. We have, however, identified the following interesting aspects which emerge from the Guidelines which our readers may want to take note of:

  • The CFTC is entitled to issue a “letter of comfort” to merging parties. A letter of comfort is not formal approval, but allows the merging parties to engage conduct their activities as if approval has been obtained. Therefore, once a letter of comfort has been obtained, the parties may implement the merger. In terms of the Guidelines, a letter of comfort will only be issued once the CTFC is satisfied that any should their investigation reveal any potential competition law concerns, that those concerns will be able to be sufficiently addressed by merger related conditions. It is not clear whether a letter of comfort will be issued before the merger has been made public and therefore it is also unclear what the role of an intervening third party will be once a letter of comfort has been issued.
  • The merger filing fee is 0.05% of the combined turnover or assets of the enterprises’ turnover. The Guidelines do not specify that the turnover must be derived from, in, or into Malawi, although it is likely that this is indeed what was intended.
  • The Act and Guidelines make provision for what is becoming a common feature of developing countries competition laws, namely the introduction of so-called “public interest” provisions in merger control. The Guidelines, however, indicate that the CFTC does not consider these public interest provisions in quite as robust manner as the authorities do other countries including, inter alia, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland. In terms of the Guidelines, any public interest advantages or disadvantages is just one of the factors that the CFTC will consider, together with the traditional merger control factors. It is thus unlikely that a pro-competitive merger would be blocked purely on public interest grounds although this is notionally possible.
  • The Guidelines set out the following factors, combined with figures that are likely to be utilised when evaluating market concentration, which if exceeded, may increase the likelihood of the merger leading to a substantial lessening of competition:
  1. Market Shares: 40% for horizontal mergers and 30% for non-horizontal mergers;
  2. Number of firms in the market;
  3. Concentration Ratios: CR3- 65%; or
  4. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI”): HHI between 1000-2000 with delta 259; or HHI above 200 with delta 150. For non-horizontal mergers a merger is unlikely to raise competition concerns if the HHI is below 2000 post-merger.

MergerMania update: COMESA CCC clears 5 notified mergers

COMESA old flag color

COMESA CCC clears 5 notified mergers

At their July 29, 2015 meeting, COMESA Competition Commissioners Chikankheni, Langa, and Okilangole rendered decisions in five merger cases notified earlier in the spring.  The affected sectors are: Packaging (Nampak), Retail (Steinhoff), Academic Publishing (Springer Verlag), Telecom Towers (Eaton Towers), and Non-Alcoholic Beverages (Coca-Cola).

Ethos/Nampak MER/03/01/2015 SOM/8/2015 Decision/10/2015  29/07/2015
Steinhoff/Pepkor MER/03/02/2015 SOM/7/2015 Decision/9/2015  29/07/2015
Holtzbrinck PG/ Springer Science MER/04/06/2015 SOM/6/2015 Decision/8/2015  29/07/2015
Eaton Towers/ Kenya, Malawi, Uganda Towers MER/04/05/2015 SOM/5/2015 Decision/7/2015 29/07/2015
Coca-Cola BAL/ Coca-Cola SABCO MER/04/07/2015 SOM/4/2015 Decision/6/2015 29/07/2015

Our statistics (while discrepant with those identified by COMESA head of mergers Mr. Willard Mwemba) show the following numbers for COMESA notifications to date:

COMESA MergerMania July 2015

Number of merger notifications based on CCC-published notices

Insight into COMESA thinking: CCC executives speak

COMESA old flag color

COMESA officials’ pronouncements: merger enforcement #1, cartel ‘follow-on enforcement’, jurisdictional swamp

As other attendees of the 17 July 2015 regional sensitisation workshop have done, the Zimbabwean daily NewsDay has reported on the Livingstone, Zambia event — a session that has yielded a plethora of rather interesting pronouncements from COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) officials, including on non-merger enforcement by the CCC, as we have noted elsewhere.

In light of the additional comments made by CCC officials — in particular George Lipimile, the agency’s CEO, and Willard Mwemba, its head of mergers — we decided to select a few and publish the  “AAT Highlights: COMESA Officials’ Statements” that should be of interest to competition-law practitioners active in the region (in no particular order):

M&A: CCC claims approval of 72 deals since 2014

Non-Merger Enforcement by COMESA

As we noted in yesterday’s post, the CCC’s head, executive director George Lipimile, foreshadowed non-merger enforcement by the agency, including an inquiry into the “shopping mall sector,” as well as cartel enforcement.  On the latter topic, Mr. Lipimile highlighted cartels in the fertiliser, bread and construction industries as potential targets for the CCC — all of which, of course, would constitute a type of “follow-on enforcement” by the CCC, versus an actual uncovering by the agency itself of novel, collusive conduct within its jurisdictional borders, as John Oxenham, a director at Africa consultancy Pr1merio, notes.
“Here, in particular, the three examples given by Mr. Lipimile merely constitute existing cartel investigations that we know well from the South African experience — indeed, the SA Competition Commission has already launched, and in large part completed, its prosecutions of the three alleged cartels,” says Oxenham.
As AAT has reported since the 2013 inception of the CCC, antitrust practitioners have been of two minds when it comes to the CCC: on the one hand, they have criticised the COMESA merger notification regime, its unclear thresholds and exorbitant fees, in the past.  On the other hand, while perhaps belittling the CCC’s merger experience, the competition community has been anxious to see what non-merger enforcement within COMESA would look like, as this (especially cartel investigations and concomitant fines under the COMESA Regulations) has a potentially significantly larger impact on doing business within the 19-member COMESA jurisdiction than merely making a mandatory, but simple, filing with an otherwise “paper tiger” agency.  Says Andreas Stargard, also with Pr1merio:
“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.”

COMESA Judge Proposes Judicial Enhancements

Justice Samuel Rugege, the former principal judge of the COMESA Court of Justice, is quoted as arguing against the COMESA Treaty’s requirement for exhaustion of local remedies prior to bringing a matter before the Court of Justice:
“I think that the rule ought to be removed and members should have access to the courts like the Ecowas Court of Justice. The matter has been raised by the president of the Court and the matter needs to be pursued. It is an obstacle to those who want to come and cannot especially on matters that are likely to be matters of trade and commercial interest. Commercial matters must be resolved in the shortest possible time as economies depend on trade,” Rugege said.
Justice Rugege also highlighted the potential for jurisdictional infighting in the COMESA region (see our prior reporting on this topic here), observing that said COMESA currently lacks any framework for coordinating matters involving countries that are part of both SADC and the COMESA bloc.

COMESA foreshadows first substantive sector study, potential cartel enforcement

Retail antitrust: “mushrooming” shopping malls vs. SMEs, and possible cartel follow-on enforcement on the horizon for CCC

As reported in the Swazi Observer and other news outlets, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) recently expressed an interest in investigating the effect that larger shopping malls have had on competition in the common market’s retail sector.

This is one of the first non-M&A investigations undertaken by the CCC, according to a review of public sources.  While observers in the competition-law community have witnessed several merger notifications (and clearances) under COMESA jurisdiction, there has been no conduct enforcement by the young CCC to speak of.  Indeed, CCC executive director George Lipimile stated at a conference in November 2014: “Since we commenced operations in January, 2013 the most active provisions of the Regulations has been the merger control provisions.”  Andreas Stargard, an attorney with the boutique Africa consultancy Pr1merio, notes:

“Looking at the relative absence of enforcement against non-merger conduct (such as monopolisation, unilateral exclusionary practices, cartels, information exchanges among competitors or other conduct investigations), this new ‘shopping mall sectoral inquiry‘ may thus mark the first time the CCC has become active in the non-merger arena — a development worth following closely.  Moreover, the head of the CCC also announced future enforcement action against cartels, albeit only those previously uncovered in other jurisdictions such as South Africa, it appears from his prepared remarks.”

The CCC’s interest in the mall sector was revealed during one of the agency’s “regional sensitisation workshops” for business journalists (AAT previously reported on one of them here).  At the event, Lipimile is quoted as follows:

“The little shops in the locations seem to be slowly disappearing because everybody is going into shopping malls. And these shopping malls and the shops in them are mostly owned by foreigners.”

The investigation will take a sampling from the economies of several of the 19 COMESA member states and attempt to determine whether the “mushrooming” growth of shopping malls negatively affects local small and medium enterprises in the whole common market.

Rajeev Hasnah, a Pr1merio consultant, former Commissioner of the CCC and previously Chief Economist & Deputy Executive Director of the Competition Commission of Mauritius, commented that,

“Conducting market studies is one of the functions of the CCC and it is indeed commendable that the institution would contemplate on conducting such a study in the development of shopping malls across the COMESA region.  I believe that this will then enable the institution to correctly identify and appreciate the competition dynamics in the operations of shopping malls and the impact they have on the economy in general.  The study should also identify whether there are areas of concerns where the CCC could initiate investigations to enable competition to flourish to the benefit of businesses, consumers and the economy in general.  We look forward to the undertaking of such a study and its findings.”

AAT agrees with this view and welcomes the notion of the CCC commencing substantive non-merger investigations.  We observe, however, that the initial reported statements on the part of the CCC tend to show that there is the potential for dangerous local protectionist motives to enter into the legal competition analysis.  As Mr. Lipimile stated at the conference:

“Though [the building of malls] might be seen as a good thing, it may negatively impact on our local entrepreneurship and might lead to poverty. Before shopping malls were built, local entrepreneurs realised sales from their products.  Now malls are taking over. … [A] strong competition policy can be an effective tool to promote social inclusion and reduce inequalities as it tends to open up more affordable options for consumers, acting as an automatic stabiliser for prices”

That said, Mr. Lipimile also stated at the same event, quite astutely, that a “solid competition framework provides a catalyst to increase productivity as it generates the right incentives to attract the most efficient firms.”  In the rational view of antitrust law & economics, if — after an objective review such as the study announced by the CCC — the “most efficient” firm happens to be a larger shopping mall that does not otherwise foreclose equally effective competition, then the Darwinian survival of the fittest in a market economy must not be impeded by regulatory intervention.

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

Mr. Lipimile himself seemed to agree in November 2014, when he said that the 19-member COMESA jurisdiction must have regard to “its trading partners [which] go beyond the Common Market hence, it requires consensus building and a balancing act.”  At this time, “when regional integration is occupying the centre stage as one of the key economic strategies and a rallying point for the development of the African continent,” domestic protectionist strategies have no place in antitrust & competition law.  Said Mr. Lipimile: “[R]egional integration can only be realized by supporting a strong competition culture in the Common Market,” which would not support a more reactionary, closed tactic of a regulatory propping-up of “domestic champions” versus more efficient foreign competition.  As the CCC head recognised, “[t]he purpose of competition law is to facilitate competitive markets, so as to promote economic efficiency, thereby generate lower prices, increase choice and economic growth and thus enhance the welfare of the general community.”