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.
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New Merger Guidelines fail to revise Rules flaw, but adjust notification threshold upwards

COMESA Competition Commission logo

COMESA publishes new Merger Assessment Guidelines, uses back-door defintion to adjust threshold to >$5 million

On Friday, the COMESA Competition Commission published its 2014 Merger Assessment Guidelines, available here in PDF.  They finally replace the prior Draft Guidelines, which the agency’s Willard Mwemba had predicted would be finalised no later than June 2014.  The new final version fails to put a formal end to the technical zero-dollar notification threshold, but — through a back-door definition of what it means to “operate” in the COMESA region — does achieve the practical effect of terminating what AAT has dubbed the “zero-threshold contagion” – i.e., any transaction between parties with any turnover/revenue whatsoever within the common market of COMESA used to be notifiable.

We invite our readers to take a look at the entire document.  Rather than having the COMESA Board meet and re-draft the actual Rule, the CCC appears to have taken the short-cut solution of ex parte “Commission consider[ation]” of what it means for a company to “operate” in the organisation’s jurisdiction.  Section 3.9 re-defines “operat[ion]” of a COMESA company as follows:

3.9 The Commission considers that an undertaking only “operates” in a Member State for purposes of Article 23(3)(a) of the Regulations if its operations in that Member State are substantial enough that a merger involving it can contribute to an appreciable effect on trade between Member States and restriction on competition in the Common Market. For these purposes, the Commission considers that an undertaking “operates” in a Member State if its annual turnover or value of assets in that Member State exceeds US $5 million.

However, it notably maintains all references to the “Rules on Notification Threshold,” which continue to specify a “U.S. $ zero” threshold:

3.4 The Commission’s Board prescribed such threshold with Council approval in the Rules on Notification Threshold, the scope of which is also limited to mergers having a “regional dimension”(Rule 3). According to the Rules on Notification Threshold currently in force, the threshold of combined annual turnover or assets for the purposes of Article 23(4) is exceeded if:
(a) the combined worldwide aggregate annual turnover or the combined worldwide aggregate value of assets, whichever is higher, of all undertakings to the merger in the Common Market equals or exceeds US $ zero; and
(b) the aggregate annual turnover or the aggregate value of assets, whichever is higher, of each or at least two undertakings to the merger in the Common Market equals or exceeds US $ zero.

It is not as though the CCC’s staff were unaware of the critiques levied against their zero-threshold regime.  Mr. Mwemba stated back in February 2014 that the agency had been setting “the wheels in motion for the threshold to be raised.”  The Commission has been eportedly working with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to determine what the proper notification thresholds should be.  AAT also understands that other antitrust advisors — including former FTC Commissioner, Chairman, law professor and competition-law conference mainstay Bill Kovacic — were helping the young enforcement agency to design a more workable and internationally respected merger-review regime.