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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COMESA competition workshops underway (#CCCworkshop)

CCC workshop participants

Events focus on media & business community’s understanding of competition rules and practical workload of CCC

Media

For two days this week, COMESA will hold its 5th annual “Regional Sensitization Workshop for Business Reporters“, focussed on provisions and application of the COMESA competition regulations and trade developments within the 19-country common market.

Over 30 journalists from close to a dozen countries are expected to participate in the event, held in Narobi, Kenya, from Monday – Tuesday.

AfricanAntitrust.com will cover all pertinent news emerging from the conference.  We will update this post as the conference progresses.

Speakers include a crème de la crème of East African government antitrust enforcement, including the CCC’s own Willard Mwemba (head of M&A), the CCC’s Director Dr. George Lipimile, and the Director and CEO of the Competition Authority of Kenya, Francis Wang’ombe Kariuki.  Topics will include news on the rather well-developed area of of mergerenforcement, regional integration & competition policy, as well as the concept of antitrust enforcement by the CCC as to restrictive business practices, an area that has been thus far less developed by the Commission in terms of visibility and actual enforcement, especially when compared to M&A.  We previously quoted Director Lipimile’s statement at a 2014 conference that, since the CCC’s commencement of operations “in January, 2013, the most active provisions of the Regulations have been the merger control provisions.”

Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner, notes:

“We have been impressed with the Commission’s progress to-date, but remain surprised that no cartel cases have emerged from the CCC’s activities.  We believe that the CCC has sufficient capacity and experience now, in its sixth year of existence, to pursue both collusion and unilateral-conduct competition cases.

Personally, I remain cautiously optimistic that the CCC will, going forward, take up the full spectrum of antitrust enforcement activities — beyond pure merger review — including monopolisation/abuse of dominance cases, as well as the inevitable cartel investigations and prosecutions that must follow.”

The media conference will conclude tomorrow evening, June 26th.

Business Community

COMESA Competition Commission logoThe second event, also held in Nairobi, will shift its focus both in terms of attendees and messaging: It is the CCC’s first-ever competition-law sensitization workshop for the Business Community, to take place on Wednesday.  It is, arguably, even more topical than the former, given that the target audience of this workshop are the corporate actors at whom the competition legislation is aimed — invited are not only practicing attorneys, but also Managing Directors, CEOs, company secretaries, and board members of corporations.  It is this audience that, in essence, conducts the type of Mergers & Acquisitions and (in some instances) restrictive, anti-competitive business conduct that falls under the jurisdiction of Messrs. Lipimile, Mwemba, and Kariuki as well as their other domestic African counterparts in the region.

The inter-regional trade component will also be emphasized; as the CCC’s materials note, “we are at a historical moment in time where the Tripartite and Continental Free Trade Area agreements are underway. The objective of these agreements is to realize a single market. Competition law plays a vital role in the realization of this objective, therefore its imperative that journalists have an understanding of how competition law contributes to the Agenda.”

#LiveUpdates from the #CCCworkshop

Kenya perspective

Boniface Kamiti, the CAK representative replacing Mr. Kariuki at the event, noted that Africa in general and including the COMESA region “has a weak competition culture amongst businesses — which is why cartels are continuing in Africa, and the level of M&A is not at the level one would expect.”  This is why media “reporting on competition advocacy is very important, to articulate the benefits of competition policy and how enforcement activities further its goals, so the COMESA countries may be able to compete with other countries, including even the EU members, at a high level.”

He also highlighted — although without further explanation — the “interplay between the COMESA competition laws and those of the member countries; most people are not aware of that!”  This comment is of particular interest in light of the prior jurisdictional tension that had existed between national agencies and the CCC in the past regarding where and when to file M&A deals.  These “teething issues are now fully resolved”, according to Dr. Lipimile, and there are neither de iure nor any de facto merger notification requirements in individual COMESA member states other than the “one-stop shop” CCC filing (which has, according to Mr. Mwemba, reduced parties’ M&A transaction costs by 66%).

On the issue of restrictive trade practices (RTP), the CAK reminded participants that trade associations often serve to facilitate RTP such as price-fixing cartels, which are subject to (historically not yet imposed, nor likely to be) criminal sanctions in Kenya. It also observed that (1) manufacturers’ resale price maintenance (RPM) would almost always be prosecuted under the Kenyan Competition Act, and that (2) since a 2016 legislative amendment, monopsony conduct (abuse of buyer power) is also subject to the Act’s prohibitions.

Concluding, the CAK’s Barnabas Andiva spoke of its “fruitful” collaboration with the CCC on ongoing RTP matters, noting the existing inter-agency Cooperation Agreement. Added Mr. Mwemba, “we have approximately 19 pending RTP cases.”

CCC leadership perspective:  Nudging Uganda and Nigeria towards competition enforcement

CCC_Director

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

Dr. Lipimile took up Mr. Kamiti’s “weak African competition culture” point, noting the peculiar regional issue that “between poverty and development lies competition” to enhance consumer welfare.

He took the audience through a brief history of antitrust laws globally, and encouraged journalists to explain the practical benefits of “creating competitive markets” for the population of the COMESA region at large.

He called on Uganda and Nigeria to — finally — enact a competition law.  (AAT has independently reported on Uganda and also the EAC’s emphasis on its member nations having operational antitrust regimes.  We observe that Uganda does have a draft Competition Bill pending for review; a fellow Ugandan journalist at the conference mentioned that there has been some, undefined, progress made on advancing it in the Ugandan legislature.)  Dangote — the vast Nigerian cement conglomerate (see our prior article here) — and Lafarge played exemplary roles in Lipimile’s discourse, in which he commented that “they do not need protecting, they are large”, instead “we need more players” to compete.

Importantly, Dr. Lipimile emphasized that protectionism is anti-competitive, that “competition law must not discriminate,” and that its goal of ensuring competitive market behaviour must not be confused with the objectives of other laws that are more specifically geared to developing certain societal groups or bestow benefits on disadvantaged populations, as these are not the objectives of competition legislation.

The CCC also called on the press to play a more active role in the actual investigation of anti-competitive behaviour, by reporting on bid rigging, unreported M&A activity, suspected cartels (e.g., based on unexplained, joint price hikes in an industry), and the like.  These types of media reports may indeed prompt CCC investigations, Lipimile said.  Current “market partitioning” investigations mentioned by him include Coca Cola, SABMiller, and Unilever.

He concluded with the — intriguing, yet extremely challenging, in our view — idea of expanding and replicating the COMESA competition model on a full-fledged African scale, possibly involving the African Union as a vehicle.

CCC workshop participants

2018 CCC workshop participants

COMESA Trade perspective

The organisation’s Director of Trade & Commerce, Francis Mangeni, presented the ‘competition-counterpart’ perspective on trade, using the timely example of Kenyan sugar imports, the cartel-like structure supporting them, and the resulting artificially high prices, noting the politically-influenced protectionist importation limitations imposed in Kenya.

Dr. Mangeni opined that the CCC “can and should scale up its operations vigorously” to address all competition-related impediments to free trade in the area.

CCC Mergers

Director of M&A, Mr. Mwemba, updated the conference on the agency’s merger-review developments. He pointed to the agency’s best-of-breed electronic merger filing mechanism (reducing party costs), and the importance of the CCC’s staying abreast of all new antitrust economics tools as well as commercial technologies in order to be able to evaluate new markets and their competitiveness (e.g., online payments).

As Mr. Mwemba rightly pointed out, most transactions “do not raise competition concerns” and those that do can be and often are resolved via constructive discussions and, in some cases, undertakings by the affected companies. In addition, the CCC follows international best practices such as engaging in pre-merger notification talks with the parties, as well as follow-ups with stakeholders in the affected jurisdictions.

Key Statistics

Year-to-date (2018), the 24 notified mergers account for approximately $18 billion in COMESA turnover alone. Leading M&A sectors are banking, finance, energy, construction, and agriculture.

In terms of geographic origination, Kenya, Zambia, and Mauritius are the leading source nations of deal-making parties, with Zimbabwe and Uganda closely following and rounding out the Top-5 country list.

The total number of deals reviewed by the CCC since 2013 amounts to 175 with a total transaction value of US $92 billion, accounting for approximately $73.7 billion in COMESA market revenues alone. (The filing fees derived by the Commission have totaled $27.9 million, of which half is shared with the affected member states.)

All notified deals have received approval thus far. Over 90% of transactions were approved unconditionally. In 15 merger cases, the CCC decided to impose conditions on the approval.

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.

The end of the zero-threshold contagion?

COMESA Competition Commission logo

COMESA Competition Commission‘s head of mergers foreshadows end of zero-threshold regime

Will the Commission soon find a cure to the contagion that has made the agency’s merger control the subject of heavy criticism by antitrust practitioners and and even ridicule by fellow enforcers? Willard Mwemba claims the agency has – after over a year of operating under the zero-threshold rule – “set the wheels in motion for the threshold to be raised.”  The Commission is reportedly working with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to determine what the proper notification thresholds should be.

We previously had this to say in November of last year:

[T]he dual dilemma of the “zero-threshold contagion” and the inordinately high filing fees currently affecting the CCC’s merger-control regime (and resulting in rather low merger-notification statistics of less than one per month) will continue to hamper the young agency and its customers for the foreseeable near-term future.

Depending on how swiftly the agency and its advisors at the IFC get things done – and the amendments actually get approved – it appears that our timing forecast was fairly accurate  (“COMESA merger rules to change in April 2014 at the earliest“).