“There is an adrenaline rush that comes with staking large amounts of money [sports betting] and hoping that the outcome could change your life,” Gerald Acidri, a boda boda rider in Kireka, says, with a twinkle in his eye at the thought of hitting the big jackpot.
Many youths like Acidri see sports betting as a one-way flight out of poverty. For many, however, that flight never takes off. Betting is so engraved in the culture of most East African sports watchers that its influence has grown greatly. For an industry that is barely 10 years old, it has infiltrated small communities in Uganda, and has had adverse effects on the people in these communities. Still, for some, betting remains an addiction.
Recently, David Bahati, the minister of state for planning, told a gathering in Kigezi diocese that the president had issued a directive to ban gambling and sports betting in the country.
This statement was retracted days later by Matia Kasaija, the minister of finance, who said betting would not be banned; however, the ownership of such businesses would be limited only to Ugandans.
He also added that foreigners who hold the licenses of sports betting would not be renewed at the point of expiry. This pronouncement sparked public debate, especially among those that had turned the practice into a source for livelihood.
ACCOUNTS OF PUNTERS
On a hot afternoon along the dusty streets of Kamwokya, we entered one of the popular betting houses named Kings Betting. It is conveniently located since it is on the ground floor of a storied building, with benches horizontally aligned facing many flat screen televisions. On the screens are different sports channels showing games highlights.
The room is dimly lit with two tellers at the back. It is almost filled to capacity. It is almost lunch time. We find revellers placing their bets. We are told there is a string of FA cup games coming up.
Many of the people we spoke to didn’t know about the new policy announcement from government. That was until we spoke to one man who identified himself as Danny. Danny’s biggest concern is the fact that the betting houses make a lot of money off the gamblers. This, he says, keeps them coming back with the hope of better results.
This is a situation that he wants government to resolve in case there are any other reforms in the offing.
“We want favourable sports betting odds against bigger teams and refunds on betting for 10 or more teams (on one ticket) without making a loss on the entire bet,” Danny said.
“Sometimes when you win a large sum of money, you might not receive the entire sum,” he added. It is not clear why some gamblers don’t get their full payment, although some attribute this to social setting; the poor tend to be cheated because some believe they don’t deserve all that money.
Such cases seem to be rampant in the betting community wherever you go and when asked which betting houses do that to customers, none of the victims wants to reveal the name of the house. Some say that their stories are not believed because they have a low social stand in society and are treated like criminals.
Some governments have gone ahead to regulate betting in order to prevent scenarios where gamblers are taken advantage of. In Rwanda, betting was suspended temporarily in 2016 in order to come up with a favourable policy for the industry. The gaming tax law there requires betting companies to pay 13 per cent of earnings while a withholding tax of 15 percent is levied on the players’ earnings.
Many people in the society look at sports betting as an activity that wastes valuable time. Meddie, a shoe shiner in Kamwokya, is one of those who is critical of sports betting.
“It has destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods. It is good that government is trying to regulate it but they should ban it in general.”
Robert Isabirye, a boda boda cyclist in Bweyogerere, blames sports betting for creating a get-rich-quick attitude among today’s youth.
“If you pass in front of Fortbet in Bweyogerere on a day when there is a big match, you will count around 50 boda bodas parked outside,” he said.
Some people support government’s decision of ringfencing the ownership of betting houses for locals.
“Betting is not bad but the foreigners are the ones spoiling things. They come here and make a lot of money and take it out of the country. Companies should be owned by Ugandans,” Ray Kasigwa, a barber in Kamwokya, said.
Some argue that the convenience that comes with mobile forms of betting such as SMS and online betting is what has made it even more dangerous. A gambler can place his bet online or through an SMS and use payment avenues such as mobile money to collect his winnings. This limits his or her contact with a betting house.
Such online platforms might make it difficult for government to easily regulate sports betting. as regulation of online platforms might require a little more investment in technology on the part of the government to curb any sort of irregular betting activity online.
Shavan, a teller at Kingsbet in Kamwokya, said foreign companies should be more professional in how they conduct business.
“In some companies, locals are employed without contracts and can easily be taken advantage of.”
“They can hire you and fire you at will,” Shavan added.
Although, sports betting is not the devil that many have described it to be. Foreign companies such as Betway sponsor clubs like Express Football Club and Kobs rugby club.