COMESA, fines, Madagascar, Malawi, mergers, Telecoms

Mergers: 1st failure-to-notify penalty — Helios now gets what Akzo avoided in 2017

The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) is stepping up to the plate in 2021, and nobody can deny it. The days of ignoring the CCC’s jurisdiction over M&A deals, joint ventures, and even anti-competitive agreements in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa are decidedly over, as the antitrust enforcer has significantly increased its presence and visibility in the legal and business communities over the past 6 months.

In its latest bid to be considered by the antitrust community to rank among the leading African competition-law agencies, the CCC has issued its first-ever failure-to-notify fine on mobile-phone infrastructure providers Helios Towers Limited (“Helios Towers”), Madagascar Towers S.A (“Madagascar Towers”) and Malawi Towers Limited (“Malawi Towers”) for failure to notify the transaction within the prescribed 30-day time period under Article 24(1) of the COMESA Competition Regulations of 2004. Helios Towers is a UK-based telecommunications company, listed on the LSE and a constituent of the FTSE 250 stock index; it operates in the Democratic Republic of Congo within the COMESA region.

COMESA Competition Commission logo

As we previously reported in 2017 (here and here), to AAT’s knowledge the only other reported transaction that came close to being fined for a failure to be notified by the merging parties was the paints deal between Akzo Nobel and Sadolin / Crown Paints: “In that transaction, the parties boldly proclaimed that the CCC simply did not have any statutory jurisdiction at all,” says attorney Andreas Stargard, an expert in African competition law. Indeed, four years ago, Akzo’s spokespeople flatly claimed that their deal fell “outside the CCC’s purview,” as “[w]e do not have a merger going on; we are a fully independent plant, so COMESA does not come into the picture at all.”

The COMESA’s CID observed that the Parties should have filed their merger notification on 22nd April 2021 in accordance with Article 24 (1) of the Regulations, but breached it.

Interestingly, as to the comparatively low amount of the fine, the CCC took into account significant mitigating aspects pursuant to Article 26(6), including these five considerations:

  • The breach was unintentional;
  • The delay in filing did not yield any “discernible advantage” to the Parties;
  • The breach did not result in any loss or harm in the market;
  • The Parties cooperated with the Commission from the time they were engaged leading to the merger being notified on 2nd July 2021 following their initial engagement; and
  • The Parties have no record of contravention with the Regulations.

Therefore, the CCC merely imposed a 0.05% fine (instead of the statutory maximum under Art. 24(5) of 10% of the parties’ turnover in the preceding calendar year in the common market). AfricanAntitrust.com confirmed this 0.05% figure with a CCC executive, clarifying that this percentage amounted to a fine of U.S. $102,101. Mr. Stargard noted his understanding that the CCC’s positioning of this fine at the extremely low end of the permissible spectrum denotes not only the parties’ significant cooperation and other mitigating factors, outlined above, but also represents a nod by the Commission to the fact that this is the first-ever enforcement action of its kind, and therefore “should not set a precedent in both substance and amount.”

The Parties may appeal the decision (available to AAT readers here) to the full Board of Commissioners in accordance with Article 15(1)(d) of the Regulations as read together with Rule 24 (e) of the COMESA Competition Rules of 2004.

The Commission’s Registrar, Ms. Meti Disasa, stated that “the fine was the first of a kind for breach of the Regulations. The Commission therefore wishes to remind Undertakings in the Common Market to be cautious of the prescribed timeline for notifying mergers in under Article 24 (1) of the Regulations.” Ms. Disasa warned undertakings operating in the Common Market “to comply with all other parts of the Regulations especially with respect to anti-competitive conduct as the Commission shall henceforth not take lightly any breaches of the regional competition law,” according to the CCC’s press release, also noting that “the decision to fine has no impact on the Commission’s assessment of any competitive effects of the merger, which is still ongoing.”

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collusion, Madagascar, Mauritius

Beer cartels: First fine sought in Mauritius leniency matter

mauritius

madagascar

Precedential leniency case yields initial fine

The Competition Commission of Mauritius (“the Commission”) has recommended fines of approximately €487,000 and €158,000 be imposed on Phoenix Beverages Ltd (PLB) and Stag Beverages, respectively, for their involvement in a cartel.

This is the country’s first cartel investigation to be made public, and the first time a party has used its leniency programme.

Phoenix and Stag have been accused by the Commission of colluding to divide the Mauritian and Madagascan beer markets between the two manufactures. The alleged agreement between the parties involved Stag leaving the Mauritian market, allowing Phoenix to dominate the country’s beer market.

Phoenix applied for leniency prior to the 24 May 2014 deadline and consequently received reduced fine.  Both companies assisted the Commission with its investigation.

The Executive Director of the CCM, Mrs. Kiran Meetarbhan, said:

“Many jurisdictions have developed programs that offer leniency because of the many benefits that flow from having them. In line with international best practices, the CCM has not lagged behind in developing a leniency program that has been reinforced so as to grant full amnesty to the first reporting firm in addition to offering judicial security to informants.

This investigation triggered our first leniency application since the CCM’s inception. This is also the first cartel investigation which I have launched in my capacity as Executive Director for which I have recommended financial penalties in addition to other measures to address competition concerns.

I wish to commend the main parties’ approach in this investigation which has revealed a true spirit of cooperation.  Leniency programs create powerful incentives to enterprises to race to self-report at an early stage. Evidence can thus be obtained more quickly, and at a lower direct cost, compared to other methods of investigation, leading to prompt and efficient resolution of cases. This case provides a perfect example of the manner in which a leniency application coupled with the active cooperation of the main parties have led to the successful completion of the investigation within a remarkable three months’ timeline.

The fine[] recommended on Phoenix Beverages Ltd takes into account its leniency application, absent which, the fines would have been higher. Phoenix Beverages Ltd took advantage of the amnesty provisions, which lapsed on 24th May 2014. We cannot stress enough the importance of the leniency programme with regards to collusive agreements.

Several factors help to free an economy from the malicious effects of a collusive agreement including a strong political support towards fighting cartels and a resilient commitment to equip the competition agency with the appropriate legislative framework and adequate financial resources. The Government has signified its intention to further empower the Competition Commission in order to better fight cartels. This was announced by the Prime Minister in his address to the Nation this year.”

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