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.
We have recently seen several articles and law firm client alerts incorrectly identifying the filing fee schedule of COMESA. This post is designed to clarify and to provide accurate information to our readers.
Rule: The filing fee for a merger notification under the COMESA regime is the lower of:  500,000 COMESA-$, or  0.5% of parties’ combined annual turnover or asset value within the COMESA market.
The confusion as to “higher of” vs. “lower of”, which has sprung up in many firm publications, may be due to the somewhat awkwardly worded language of the amendments to the original 2004 Competition Rules. The amendments changed the text of Rule 55(4), dealing with the fee schedule and its calculation.
Example: The two notifying parties have a combined turnover of 90m COM$ in the common market of COMESA. In this scenario, 0.5% of 90m COM$ equals 450,000 COM$, which is lower than the maximum fee of 500,000. Thus, the fee to be paid by the parties is 450,000 COM$.
As a rule of thumb, if the combined annual turnover/revenues/asset values of the notifying parties is 100 million COMESA-$, then the fee will be the maximum 500,000 amount. Otherwise, it will be lower.