Business community embraces COMESA competition law: First-ever #CCCworkshop at full capacity

The first-ever COMESA-sponsored competition law workshop focussed solely on the business community, currently underway in Nairobi, Kenya, stretches the capacity of the Hilton conference room where it is being held.

The event’s tag line is “Benefits to Business.” Especially now, with the African continent sporting over 400 companies with over $500m in annual revenues, the topic of antitrust regulation in Africa is more pertinent than ever, according to the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC).

The head of the Zambian competition regulator (CCPC), Dr. Chilufya Sampa, introduced the first panel and guest of honour. He identified the threats of anticompetitive last behaviour as grounds for he need to understand and support the work of he CCC and its sister agencies in the member states.

With COMESA trade liberalisation, the markets at issue are much larger than kenya or other national markets. The effects of anticompetitive conduct are thus often magnified accordingly.

The one-stop shop nature of the CCC’s merger notification system simplifies and renders more cost-effective the transactional work of companies doing business in COMESA.

The Keynote speaker, Mr. Mohammed Nyaoga Muigai, highlighted the exciting future of the more and more integrated African markets, offering new challenges and opportunities. He challenged the audience to imagine a single market of over 750 million consumers. Companies will have to think creatively and “outside the box” in these enlarged common markets.

His perspective is twofold: for one, as a businessman and lawyer, but also as a regulator and board chairman and member of the Kenyan Central Bank. Effective competition policy (and access to the legal system) allows to prepare the ground for the successful carrying out of business in the common market. Yet, businesses must know what the regulatory regime actually is. Therefore, the duty of lawyers is to educate their clients about the strictures and requirements of all applicable competition law, across all COMESA member states.

After a group photo, the event continued with an informative presentation by Mr. Willard Mwemba on key facts that “companies should know” on merger control in the (soon enlarged to 21 member states, with the imminent addition of Tunisia and Somalia) COMESA region, starting with its historical roots in COMESA Treaty Article 55 and continuing through the current era since 2013 of the CCC’s regulatory oversight.

Willard Mwemba, Head of M&A at the CCC

He provided relevant merger statistics, jointly with Director of Trade affairs, Dr. Francis Mangeni, which were of great interest to the audience, followed by a discussion of substantive merger review analysis as it is undertaken by the Commission. The benefits of the “one-stop-shop” characteristic of CCC notification versus multiple individual filings were extolled and individual past M&A cases discussed.

AAT will live-update the blog as the event progresses.

Dr. Sampa, CCPC executive

Dr. Sampa, as head of the Zambian CCPC and a former CCC Board member, emphasized the importance for companies to have functioning and well-implemented antitrust compliance programmes in place.

A spirited discussion was had relating to the 30% market share threshold the Commission utilises to evaluate triggers for launching antitrust conduct investigations. Primerio’s Andreas Stargard argued for COMESA’s consideration of an increase in this trigger threshold to 40%, proposing that:

“Especially in an already concentrated market (where players possess majority shares anyway), a low initial share threshold is of little to no additional enforcement value. On the contrary, a low threshold may hamper vigorous competition by smaller to midsize competitors or newer entrants, who wish to grow their (previously innocuous) smaller share of the market but are simultaneously held back in their growth efforts by trying not to cross the 30% barrier so as not to attract the attention of the Commission.”

There was also an issue raised regarding private equity and non-profit / “impact investors” and the like having to bear the burden of notifications and ancillary fees in cases that are otherwise unobjectionable almost by definition (since the investors are not present on the market of the acquired entities in which they invest). Dr. Mangeni indicated that the CCC will investigate and consider whether a proposed change in the applicable Rules to account for this problem may be advisable in the future.

Mary Gurure, head of legal (CCC)

The CCC’s chief legal advisor, Ms. Mary Gurure, presented on conflict of laws issues within the COMESA regime, harmonisation of laws, and CCC engagements with individual member states on these issues.

Crucially, she also mentioned a novel initiative to replicate a COMESA-focused competition enforcer network, akin to the ECN and ICN groupings of international antitrust agencies.

Business panel #CCCworkshop 2018

The conference concluded with a business lawyer panel, in which outside counsel and in-house business representatives voiced their perspectives, largely focusing on the issue of merger notifications. These topics included the (1) burdens of having to submit certified copies of documents, (2) high filing fees (particularly in light of relatively low-value deals being made in the region), (3) comparatively low notification thresholds (e.g., the $10m 2-party turnover limit), (4) remaining, if minimal, confusion over multiple filing obligations, (5) questions surrounding the true nature of the “public interest” criterion in the CCC’s merger evaluation, which could benefit from further clarification via a Guideline or the like, and (6) the importance of predictability and consistency in rulings.

Panellists also commented on the positive, countervailing benefits of the one-stop-shop nature of the CCC, as well as highlighting the friendly nature of the COMESA staff, which permits consensus-building and diplomatic resolutions of potential conflicts.

Mr. Mwemba concluded the event by responding to each of the panel members’ points, noting that forum-shopping based on the costs of filing fees reflected a misguided approach, that the CCC may consider increasing filing thresholds, and that the CCC’s average time to reach merger decisions has been 72 (calendar) days.

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New Penalty Guidelines Provide Incentive to Apply for Leniency

Zambia: New Penalty Guidelines may Incentivise Firms to Apply for Leniency

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

At the recent International Competition Network conference held in Singapore, the International Competition Network (ICN), in conjunction with the World Bank, named the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) as one of the best Competition Authorities in advocating competition in key domestic markets.

The CCPC, as a competition agency, is making significant strides to ensure that the Zambian market is competitive to ensure greater consumer benefit.

In particular, the CCPC has, in recent years, strengthened its efforts to detect cartel conduct. This includes carrying out search and seizure operations, initiating investigations and introducing a corporate leniency policy (Zambian CLP) for whistle-blowers.

The Zambian CLP affords a firm who has engaged in cartel conduct, who is ‘first through the door’ in disclosing the cartel and who provides the CCPC with sufficient evidence to prosecute the cartel total immunity from an administrative penalty.

Unlike its South African counter-part, the Zambian CLP also caters for a ‘leniency plus’ whereby the ‘second through the door’ may qualify for up to a 50% reduction in respect of a potential administrative penalty.

In spite of leniency policies being regarded as arguably the most effective tool by which competition agencies detect and prosecute cartel conduct, we are not aware of the CCPC having yet received an application in terms of its CLP (as at March the CPCC had confirmed that it had not yet received such an application).

The reluctance by firms to come forward and expose cartel conduct in Zambia may be due to the fact that the Zambian CLP only extends immunity in respect of administrative liability and does not protect a whistle-blower from potential criminal or civil liability.

Despite the lack of success which the Zambian CLP has achieved thus far, the policy has only been in effect for just over a year. Furthermore, the CCPC has strengthened its efforts in initiating and concluding investigations in various sectors (which includes the stockbroker, frozen fish and milling industries, the latter of which is still on-going).

Accordingly, and in light of the recently published Draft Guidelines for the Issuance of Fines (Guidelines) (now for public comment), there may well be more activity in so far as the CLP is concerned.

zambiaThe Guidelines are clear in that administrative penalties should be punitive and should have a sufficient deterrent effect. The CCPC has expressly stated that it does not want administrative penalties to merely be considered as a ‘cost of doing business’ in Zambia.

Unsurprisingly, the Guidelines confirm that in respect of cartel conduct, “the fines to be imposed will be the highest due to the seriousness of the conduct”. Furthermore, the Guidelines state that “preceding such fines may be conviction for criminal culpability by a Court of Competent jurisdiction”.

In terms of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act (the “Act”), a firm’s potential liability is capped at 10% of its turnover derived within or from Zambia (similar to the EU’s 10% turnover cap), although the implementation of this cap is uncertain as we indicate below.

The Guidelines state that the 10% cap should be based on the latest audited financial years. While the CCPC will accept management accounts in certain circumstances, it should be noted that the CCPC will add 5% to the total as reflected in the management accounts.

Importantly, while the Guidelines recognise that an administrative penalty may be adjusted depending on aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the Guidelines provide, as a starting point, a ‘base fine’ which will be calculated in accordance with the nature of the contravention. We set these out below.

Base (%)

Conduct

7 Cartels
4 Resale Price Maintenance
4 Abuse of Dominance
3 Mergers
5 Restrictive Business Practices

 

John Oxenham, an African competition law practitioner, notes that the ‘base fine’ is “calculated utilising a firm’s aggregated turnover generated in or from Zambia, irrespective of the relevant market. In other words, the CCPC considers a firm’s total turnover in Zambia as the affected turnover, which can cause fines to mushroom in the case of diversified conglomerates with large revenues even where the affected, cartelised product market is de minimis.”

Importantly, in relation to prohibited horizontal or vertical conduct, the CCPC will impose a fine based on each year in which the parties contravened the Act, up to a maximum of five years. While the Guidelines as noted above, expressly state that the total penalty will be capped at the statutory cap of 10%. In light of the fact that the base fines start at 4% (which would in any evet exceed the statutory cap after only 2.5 years) it seems that the CCPC is of the view that each year in which a firm engaged in cartel conduct should be viewed as a separate contravention (i.e. that the statutory cap only applies per contravention). This will need to be clarified as a firm who is found to have engaged in anti-competitive conduct (including vertical restrictive practices) may be subjected to an exorbitant administrative fine.

It remains to be seen whether the significant administrative liabilities which is contemplated in terms of the Guidelines is indeed permissible and in accordance with the Act, and secondly, whether it will incentivise firms to take advantage of the CLP.