COMESA Competition Chief Approves of FDI, M&A Transactions

Lipimile Advocates for Foreign Direct Investment, Encouraging Acquisition-Hungry Multi-Nationals in Recent COMESA Trade Remarks

In a comment on the COMESA Simplified Trade Regime (STR) regional programme, recently being implemented locally in the border region between Rwanda and the DRC, George Lipimilie, the Chief Executive Officer of the COMESA Competition Commission, stated that the regional body’s “focus on free movement of goods has generally paid dividends resulting in [] a lot of cross-border mergers and acquisitions,” according to an article in the Rwanda New Times.

George Lipimile of the COMESA Competition Commission

It appears that the CCC chief is expressly favouring foreign direct investment into the region by way of mergers (or perhaps more accurately, acquisitions).  “This is particularly so where the ‘foreign’ (presumably implying non-COMESA) multi-national entity brings with it novel technologies or R&D to improve the market position of the local competitor,” according to Andreas Stargard, a Pr1merio Ltd. competition-law practitioner.

Of interest to M&A practitioners, Mr. Lipimile is quoted as saying: “There are situations when foreign companies use acquisitions to enter the market where you find a multinational company buying a local company which is good because it comes with a lot of technology.” (Emphasis added).

Mr. Lipimile was also rather specific about encouraging FDI in the region’s raw-materials sector from nation states other than the PRC: said Lipimile, “[w]e have seen China taking advantage of our raw materials and we hope more countries can follow suit.”

We note that the domain of international trade — specifically tariffs as barriers to trade — has historically not been within the jurisdictional purview of the COMESA Competition Commission, which was designed to be a competition-law enforcement body.  Technically, there exists the post of COMESA Director for Trade, Customs & Monetary Affairs, held by Dr. Francis Mang’eni and not by Mr. Lipimile.  The CCC, however, “has recently emerged to take a more active role within the COMESA architecture of regional enforcement institutions,” Mr. Stargard says.  He notes that Article 4 of the COMESA Treaty expressly provides that “[i]n the field of trade liberalisation and customs co-operation [the Member States shall] (a) establish a customs union, abolish all non-tariff barriers to trade among themselves”, and that the regional Competition Regulations expressly bestow the CCC with the authority to investigate and abolish all “anti-competitive practices affecting COMESA regional and international trade.”

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M&A news: First publicly reported failure-to-file accusation in COMESA

Commission goes after Dutch paint manufacturer in Uganda in supra-national enforcement action threat

By AAT staff

The African expansion saga of Japanese paint manufacturer Kansai continues, albeit not in Southern Africa (after having travailed through a hostile takeover of South African paint company Freeworld Coatings and obtaining a majority stake in Zimbabwean competitor Astra Industries in 2010 and 2013, respectively): the current Kansai-related antitrust story is a COMESA one, which comes to us from East Africa.

As was reported back in 2013 in industry publication CoatingsWorld, Kansai had set its sights on expanding into Eastern Africa as well, focussing on the Sadolin brand (formerly owned by AkzoNobel and since its private equity buy-out produced under a continuing AkzoNobel licence and under the parent label Crown Paints).

This has now changed, says competition attorney Andreas Stargard with Primerio Ltd.: “Recently, the COMESA Competition Commission had become aware of press reports that AkzoNobel had withdrawn its Kansai/Sadolin licence in Uganda (a COMESA member state) and effectively entered into — or planned to enter into — a new agreement with an unnamed ‘local producer’.”

Mr. Stargard, who practices competition law with a focus on African companies and jurisdictions, points out that the COMESA merger-notification regime requires a mandatory filing under certain conditions, such as those affecting 2 or more member states and involving businesses with at least $10m in combined regional revenues.

“Whilst the COMESA review is non-suspensory (meaning the parties must notify, but can go ahead and implement the transaction prior to the termination of the CCC’s antitrust review), the notification itself is mandatory.  A failure-to-file can result in significant fines of up to 10% of combined turnover, as well as the regional annulment of the merger within the COMESA countries.

This is what has now happened with Mr. Lipimile’s Sept. 19th letter to AkzoNobel: the CCC chief warned the company that it would risk voiding any contracts if it failed to make a ‘curative’ retroactive filing by yesterday, Monday, 25 September 2017.”

The CCC’s letter to the Dutch paint giant reads in relevant part: “Kindly be informed that the COMESA competition commission has become aware through the media that Akzo Nobel Powder Coatings has entered into sales, manufacturing and distribution agreements with a local paint manufacturer in Uganda.  I wish to inform you that, mergers and any other forms of agreements between competitors are required to be notified to the Commission….without such notification, and subsequent approval by the Commission, such transactions are null and void ab initio and no rights or obligations imposed on the participating parties shall be legally enforceable in the Common Market.”

As to the likelihood of any notification having been made — or at least made satisfactorily and completely —  Andreas Stargard observes that:

“By any antitrust lawyer’s standards, scrambling to make a filing within less than a week, as seems to be required by George’s letter here, is a tall order — merger notifications usually require significant preparatory work, including data analysis, document collection, and interviews with the business people to advance to a final ‘filing’ stage.  To do so in 6 calendar days is extremely difficult.”

He concludes that, “as COMESA is still a relatively young regime in terms of merger filings — with few resources at hand to manage notifications in and of themselves, much less enforcement actions — we expect that the CCC and the parties will somehow arrive at an amicable settlement in this matter.”

Don’t wait for leniency… Lipimile signals delays

COMESA Chief Warns of Delayed Implementation of Leniency Policy

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

George Lipimile, Director, COMESA Competition Commission

In an interview with Concurrences, CCC Director George Lipimile stated cautiously that, while the agency had engaged a consultant to help it craft a regional leniency programme, it still had to “be discussed in detail with Member States. Given the different legal systems and the feedback coming from the consultations with Member States so far, this may take some time.”

Thus, “while there is no amnesty programme visible on the near-term horizon, the CCC’s novel cartel enforcement push poses particular concerns for undertakings operating in the COMESA region,” says Andreas Stargard, attorney with Africa advisory firm Pr1merio.  “Director Lipimile has expressed his agency’s plan — jointly with the World Bank organisation — to launch a project designed to combat cartel activity.  They propose to do so first, it seems, by piggy-backing off of other enforcers’ previous investigations, such as the South African Competition Commission’s cartel cases, and analysing whether those instances of foreign collusion could have harmful effects on the COMESA economies.”

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.”