Young, male and living by the dice in Kampala

Sports betting has skyrocketed in popularity amongst poor Ugandan youth in recent years. However, addiction is an inevitable side-effect and the government has yet to take action to stem the steady trickle of young people falling into dependence on gambling and drink. What is the attraction for betters and what can be done to limit the damage to society?

Men gather around a table in a betting shop

George Cockcroft wrote his semi-autobiographical book The Dice Man about a psychologist who chooses to live his life based on the decisions based on the casting of a dice. Despite its controversies- with the die leading Cockcroft’s character to rape, murder and frequent sordid "dice parties”- the novel captured the mood of the 1970s as economic recession led people to live an increasingly precarious existence.

Faced with uncertainty, poverty and boredom, The Dice Man tapped into a restless undercurrent. Nearly 50 years on, in cities like Kampala, East African youth facing the drudgery of poverty are falling for the exhilaration of gambling depicted in Cockroft’s classic- except this is real life, and is happening on a breath-taking scale.

Sports betting depends on human weaknesses, from addictive personality types, to the juvenile impulse to jump to the defense of a favourite team despite the odds. The betting industry knows its audience, and has tapped into a whole range of insecurities to find incredible success in the deadbeat neighbourhoods of East Africa’s cities.

For young people growing up in the slums of Kampala, career options are limited and necessity dictates major life choices. Economic uncertainty takes away people’s control over their own lives. Yet, there is one way to buy back control: the Premier League is exciting and “earning” a little bit on the side through gambling can be a way to cheat the system, jump the queue and flip the dull grind of poverty on its head.

Sports gambling is on the up in Uganda thanks to the mood created by various economic circumstances. People in precarious financial situations are turning to gambling as a pastime or even as an alternative to savings accounts and means to improve financial liquidity. While betting shops are still popular, according to gambling app developer BtoBet, the majority of bets in the country are placed through mobile apps; meaning the habit is worryingly accessible and potentially ubiquitous in users’ lives.

Evidently, people are happy to pin their hopes on the luck or misfortune of a Manchester United or Arsenal; yet as of now there are no social policies in Uganda designed to deal with the as yet unknown scale of the fallout from gambling and alcohol addiction. The Dice Man concludes with the protagonist in ruins, having lost his job, his wife and family; although it’s not necessary to consult a 1970s novelist to see the damage already taking place on the Ugandan capital’s streets.

A losing game

There is a striking correlation between domestic violence and pressure on household spending caused by gambling. Similarly, the link between alcoholism and gambling has been well documented internationally; the two vices working in catastrophic symbiosis. The predominantly male clientele at betting shops tallies with theories that testosterone and pressure to act as the ‘breadwinner’ drives risky financial behaviour.

Surprisingly, despite its association with destitution, the majority of gamblers are actually engaged in some kind of employment (particularly in precarious ‘informal’ employment, working odd jobs or trading on a very local level). The theory goes that job insecurity and sense of powerlessness it creates drives people to gamble to either increase their earnings or seek a sense of control in their lives by ‘playing the system’.

This means that Uganda’s gamblers, on the whole, are breadwinners and that gambling addiction threatens more than just the unlucky individual whose shilling notes back unlucky horses and teams floundering in the league tables.

Interestingly, micro-credit companies have exploded at the same time gambling companies. Could it be that hapless debtors are turning to gambling to repay swollen debts? Under-regulated micro-finance has a track record of wreaking havoc. In India, it led to a spate of face-saving suicides by unsuccessful farmers, who chose to drink the very pesticides they became indebted for in order to escape the their creditors. There is evidence to suggest regular gamblers in Kampala use betting to improve their liquidity, so it would not be a huge leap to connect the two booming phenomena.

What policies?

What policies are in place to counter the inevitable side-effects of gambling such as bankruptcy, depression and battered spouses? So far, there are none. The government appears to be in denial, while the healthcare system is badly quipped to deal with the rise in domestic violence and mental illness associated with gambling addiction, given that Uganda has few specialist mental healthcare units.

The strategy instead seems to be focused on prevention through so-called ‘sin taxes’. Research by Economic Policy Research Centre (REPRS) at Makerere University shows that in 2016 the government earned 11b UGX in taxes from gambling- over 5 times the amount collected in 2003. The research that produced these figures was silent on the cause behind this revenue increase, although it seems to indicate that the number of gamblers has increased significantly in recent years. But, while a cool 11b UGX to the government is no small addition to public revenue, it is difficult to assess whether this will cover the cost for the impact of gambling in the long term.

The tax approach is supported by the myth that since gambling costs money, gamblers must be wealthy. Apart from being untrue (47% of Uganda’s betting shops can be found in Kampala’s slums), this falsehood emphasises the individuals’ will and responsibility which enables the government to dodge responsibility in shaping policies which tackle the social drivers of gambling- namely poverty, unstable employment and high expectations placed on young male breadwinners. Low-income households are the biggest spenders in proportion to their income (McD 2005) with the most to lose.

What’s more, sin taxes are not ring-fenced. Given that Uganda is still developing, income creamed from alcohol, tobacco and gambling are more likely to be in invested in essential infrastructural projects- roads and railways- than to specialist rehabilitation programs.

According to REPRS, young men gamble the most with men under 25 accounting for almost half of Uganda’s betters. Gambling amongst minors is also common, and causes additional problems including loss of school fees and sluggish academic performance. Again this tallies up with the theory that boys feel the pressure to bring home an income and beat the depressing poverty of the surroundings, while girls hang back in entering traditionally male-dominated areas, like bet shops and bars.

The National Lotteries Act of 1967 is outdated and ill-equipped to deal with new technology. Ring-fencing gambling taxes to reinvest in social problems germinated by betting would be a good start. Whether punters opt to gamble out of desperation, boredom or lack of education, the state of the economy is a consistent driver pushing young Ugandans towards the 'dice man' life. The strong relationship between gambling and unstable employment should be a signpost which directs policy makers on how and where to intervene.

Eric Mugaju is a recent graduate of LSE MSc Social Policy and is a Ugandan writer and blogger. He studied Law and Development at SOAS, University of London. His interests include legal issues in Africa and political economy. You can follow him on Twitter @e-mugaju

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