Battling Kenya's betting craze

(Photo: The national soccer team Harambee Stars players and officials in a victory celebration after they won a regional tournament in December 2017)

Like a well-scripted movie, many Kenyans who come into a windfall in the betting craze that has gripped the country in the past five years, talk of spending their money in the same prescribed order:

“First I will give tithe in my local church. I will also pay school fees for my children and then buy a piece of land and build myself a house. The rest I will invest in a business of my choice.” said one recent winner. "I am really grateful to God for this win."

The final point of the winner's statement captures what essentially describes Kenyans as a group - highly religious, with an obsession for tithing. According to the U.S. Department of State, approximately 80 percent of Kenyans practice Christianity - with Protestants representing 58 percent of that majority and Roman Catholics representing 42 percent. The rest of the population practices Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Baha'i, and various other traditional indigenous religions.

We want all the gambling machines taken away before we take the law into our own hands.
— Reverend Jeremano Guchunge of the Anglican Church of Kenya

Also captured in the statement is the love Kenyans have for education as well as a huge appetite for land ownership and entrepreneurship.

As many Kenyans turn to and some even find fortune in gambling, the end result is not always prosperous. There are numerous reports of gamblers committing suicide after a loss, or students dropping out of school after gambling away their tuition money, or families being divided because of feuds that result from the misuse of winnings.  

Things have gotten so out of hand that both the government and church leaders are searching for ways to combat what is now being described as a national crisis in Kenya.

Early this month, police in Kilifi County (400 kilometers south of Nairobi) launched investigations into the death of a 13-year-old boy after the family linked his demise to betting. The boy hanged himself after a quarrel with his 15-year-old uncle who allegedly denied him sh 100 (about one U.S. dollar) of his winnings three days earlier.

“The younger one won but the other refused to part with the cash. We understand he became infuriated, leading to a fight. He then dashed to the house after being overpowered. He sent his sister for water but when the girl came back she found the brother dangling from the roof, having hanged himself using a bed sheet,” local administrator Maitha Thoya said.

It was the second death in as many months in the same locality after a 9-year-old killed himself in December. He apparently lost a bet and demanded a refund from his friends. When they refused, he hanged himself.

In February of 2016, a Tanzanian gambler went on a rampage and slashed to death two managers of a casino after he had gambled and lost Sh30,000 (about 300 US dollars) in Nairobi.  The man, identified as John Muchanga, was confronted and eventually killed by a mob as he tried to attack a third person at the casino.

Press reports around the same time highlighted the case of Kennedy Kosgei of Eldoret, who borrowed Sh45,000 (450 US dollars) from Kenya Commercial Bank and placed all the stake on Spanish football club Real Madrid using two different accounts on online betting firm Sportpesa. He was later discovered hanging from a tree after his beloved team lost to its arch-rival, Atletico Madrid, via a solitary goal.

Another man lost Sh500,000 that he had borrowed to bet on the same match. The 42-year-old suffered double tragedy when his wife left him after she discovered that her husband had lost their student loans to Sportpesa. Moses Omwoyo later reported that his Higher Education Loans Board cash "disappeared in only 90 minutes."

In order to put a check on these excesses, President Uhuru Kenyatta last year proposed a 35 percent tax on all betting companies, a proposal that was met by an uproar from the firms. Captain Ronadl Karauri, the CEO of the leading betting company SportPesa, threatened to withdraw sponsorship to some of the leading sports clubs if the government went ahead with the proposed taxation. The firm - that now has interests in the English Premier League and is in talks with the Spanish La Liga - went to court. However, the case was dismissed and the betting firms have been ordered to abide with the new regulations.

In retaliation, SportPesa withdrew its sponsorhips to sports and the teams that have been affected, including Kenya Rugby Union with the biggest share of Sh600 million for the next five years. Meanwhile, Kenya Premier League giants Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards have also seen their Sh50 and Sh45 million earnings cut respectively. The Kenya Premier League sponsorship package was worth Sh360 million with Boxing Association of Kenya receiving Sh20 million.

Some Kenyans believe the betting firms are blackmailing the government and the country as a whole.

"SportPesa ought to be probed. It’s engaged in blackmail. Why did it cancel local sponsorship alone?" asked social commentator Albert Kasembeli. "The amount they spend in sponsoring a single team in EPL is four times what’s spent in entire sports sponsorship in Kenya. A casual research has confirmed that in countries like UK, Canada and USA taxation is up to 90% compared to Kenya's 35% considering the amount they make.”

As the debate continues, a group of preachers in Meru County (300 kilometers to the east of Nairobi) recently gathered for prayers against the gambling craze which they said was not only sinful but is ultimately to blame for the destruction of countless families. The church leaders are now considering forming a vigilante group to crack down on gambling and illicit brew dens in the area.

“Women, children and the youth are taking all the money to the gambling dens," said Reverend Jeremano Guchunge of the Anglican Church of Kenya. "Those who are lucky to win rush to drink illicit brews. We want all the gambling machines taken away before we take the law into our own hands,”

So church leaders continue to meet in search of a peaceful solution.