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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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, commissioners, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, personnel, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe

#COMESA21: New member states, new commissioners

#COMESA21

In a milestone enlargement of the (now formerly) 19-member COMESA region, Tunisia and Somalia have acceded to the trade bloc at the 20th COMESA Summit on 19th July 2018, creating #COMESA21 – Africa’s largest free trade region.

Their application to join had been pending since 2016.  Under the Treaty, the new members will be bound by the provisions of the Treaty and must deposit their formal instrument of acceptance of the terms of admission with the Secretary General, together with an instrument of accession pursuant to Articles 194 and 195 of the Treaty with regard to a State admitted to full membership.  Says Primerio’s Andreas Stargard, “with the privilege of membership comes the obligation of agreeing to abide by the antitrust rules promulgated under the COMESA Treaty.  This includes the Competition Commission’s procedural and substantive rules and notably its merger regulations.  It remains to be seen how the still weakened bureaucratic structure of the Somali Republic will be able to implement the strictures of a working competition-law regime…

Indeed, the CCC’s recent Notice No. 2/2018 provides that “the provisions of the COMESA Competition Regulations of 2004, and its accompanying rules, shall be enforceable in the territories of the Republic of Tunisia and the Federal Republic of Somalia with immediate effect.”

Personnel News 2018

In addition to gaining two new member states, COMESA also underwent personnel changes, adding an experienced antitrust practitioner, Zimbabwean Competition and Tariff Commission director, Ellen Ruparanganda, as one of the nine CCC commissioners, for a term of three years.  Besides Ms. Ruparanganda, Francis Lebon (Seychelles), Ali Hamadou Ali Kako (Djibouti), Thembelihle Dube (Eswatini, formerly Swaziland), Danson Buya Mungatana (Kenya), Michael Teklu Beyene (Ethiopia), Charlotte Wezi Malonda (Malawi), Islam Tagelsir Ahmed Alhasan (Sudan), and Brian Muletambo Lingela (Zambia) were also sworn in.

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AAT exclusive, Botswana, BRICS, COMESA, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, WRAP (the), Zambia

“The WRAP” — our monthly summary of antitrust developments across the continent

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Competition-Law Developments: a WRAP from the Comp-Corner

Issue 2 – August 2016

The editors and authors at AAT welcome you to the second edition of “The WRAP.”

We look at the most recent developments and updates in respect of competition law and enforcement which has taken place across the African continent in recent months.

As always, thank you for reading the WRAP, and remember to visit us at AAT for up-to-date competition-law news from the African continent.

         –Ed. (we wish to thank our contributors, especially Michael James Currie, for their support)

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Big Picture, Botswana, BRICS, COMESA, jurisdiction, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia

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, East Africa, Extra-judicial Factors, fees, Malawi, merger documentation, mergers, public-interest

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.
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distribution, exclusivity, Malawi, mobile, Telecoms

Mobile phone provider loses antitrust appeal

malawi

 

 

Mobile phone provider loses antitrust appeal

Airtel Malawi Limited, a company incorporated under the Companies Act, engaged in the provisions of mobile phone and telecommunication services in Malawi has lost its appeal against the decision of the Competition and Fair Trading Commission regarding its application for authorisation of an exclusive distribution arrangement.

In a letter dated 28 May 2013, Airtel applied to the commission for the authorisation of an exclusive dealership agreement with its distributors in respect of the sale of its recharge vouchers and other products. This application is in line with section 44 of the Competition and Fair Trading Act Cap 48:09 of the Laws of Malawi.

Due to the fact that Airtel’s exclusive dealership agreement with its distributors contained a clause to ensure that the Distribution Sales Accountants are employed exclusively to undertake Airtel’s sales activities, the Commission refused its approval. The Commission provided its reasoning in a letter to Airtel dated 1st August 2013, specifically stating that the clause “would negatively affect competition in the distribution of mobile products particularly in rural areas.”

Airtel filed an appeal at the High Court Commercial Division against the Commssion’s order that required the company to remove or amend the clause in issue. Airtel submits that the Commission cannot reasonably expect it to appoint Distributor Sales Accountants who will be engaged in accounting for the sales of Airtel’s competitiors in the market.

Delivering his ruling on the 10th of February 2013, Justice Mtambo upheld the decision of the commission and found the justification for the rejection of Airtel’s application for the approval of distributorship agreement to be reasonable. Justice Mtambo went further and stated that, “it is after all the Appellant who is attempting to regulate the business affairs and conduct of its distributors who are independent businesspersons just because the Appellant has dominance on the market.”

 

The court also ruled that it was within the mandate of the Competition and Fair Trading Commission to require companies that use exclusive distribution arrangements in the distribution of their products or services to amend their standard agreements.

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