Four out of every 10 Nigerians are actively engaging in sports betting, pushing tens of thousands of young men into psychological depression and poverty.
Peter Onyema* was 15 when he started sports betting. Freshly out of secondary school, he had enough time on his hands. By the time he got into the university, he had advanced to online betting which is rampant in Enugu, a city in Nigeria’s Southeast.
He now battles an addiction.
“As long as I have money, I’ll transfer to my online betting account, select the best games in my estimation, and play. I only stop when I run out of funds, but that only lasts a few days or so. It is that bad,” he told TRT World.
On virtually every street in Enugu, there is a betting shop. The tell-tale signs that distinguish such shops include constant electricity – most are not reliant on the country’s unreliable power supply and hence have their own petrol-powered generators –and an abundance of young people, mostly teenage and young men loitering inside the buildings, their eyes glued to the computers mounted on the walls. The young people are bettors, looking to see if their games came through. Peter is one of such boys.
Kalu Ukpai, too, is a feature in these shops. Kalu, a recent graduate of the University of Nigeria, says he started betting in 2017 while in his third year. “I started betting because I felt that I had a little knowledge of soccer, but it has become a daily habit.” He said. “If someone sends me N2000 (about $4.8) now, I will definitely use N500 (about $1.22) at least to bet online.” At the moment, he spends around N 20000 (about $48.66) monthly on betting.
Peter and Kalu are not unicorns. According to a report by the News Agency of Nigeria, published in the Businessday Newspapers, 60 million Nigerians, 4 out of every 10, actively engage in sports betting. These bettors collectively spend $5.5 million on betting every day, amounting to a whopping $2 billion yearly. Another report reveals that Nigerians likely to bet on sports are typically males between 18-40-years old. Of that number, more than 50 percent bet daily. Hidden in plain sight, a sports betting addiction is raging amongst Nigeria’s young people, and no one is talking about it.
Gambling is not new in Nigeria. Before the advent of the internet, in the 90s, betting pools were the forms of betting favoured by the elderly. However, online betting changed the landscape and the demographic.
With the internet, betting has become easier and more accessible, especially to the youth. There are numerous betting sites like Bet9ja, Nairabet, Naijabet, 360bet, amongst others.
Bet9Ja is currently Nigeria’s top online bookmaker. Launched in 2013, it has come to assume pride of place in the online sports betting space in Nigeria.
In the 2000s, it seemed as though a new wave of consciousness was introduced into the Nigerian online betting space. There are several reasons for this. The first is the change in business strategies aimed at Nigeria’s youth population. Nigeria currently has a population of over 200 million, with about half of those being young people. Strategies employed include the use of celebrities as brand ambassadors. For instance, Nigerian footballer JJ Okocha is the brand ambassador for BetKing. Furthermore, betting companies are making forays into entertainment. Betway sponsored the Big Brother Naija reality TV show in 2020, allegedly spending $ 1 million. BBN being one of the most-watched reality shows in Nigeria, with a huge youth audience, no doubt did no small favours to BetKing’s visibility
For these online sports betting, three options are available. A punter (a bettor) could bet in a betting shop, directly on online betting sites, or use offshore/international betting sites. Online betting companies typically have agents who open betting shops where bettors play games, but this is usually the case for those who cannot play online themselves. “It seemed like magic.”
However, the biggest attraction for online betting is the promise of quick gains. “It seemed like magic. You put in some money and get more out of it. When I started betting, I imagined all the things I would do with the money I make. I thought it would be easy, making predictions and winning,” said Peter. This line of thinking is prevalent amongst young bettors and is perhaps understandable given that Nigeria just exited a recession, with the unemployment rate still placed at about 33 percent for the first quarter of 2021. For the average Nigerian young person, being enamoured by seemingly easy routes to wealth appears almost inevitable.
The possibility of quick riches is buoyed by the ease with which it ought to take place. In the milieu of unresponsive and subpar service delivery in Nigeria, betting companies manage to remain efficient. Setting up an account on any of the platforms takes a few minutes. Integration with a Nigerian bank account and actual betting is further seamless.
All of these have culminated in a raging online sports betting addiction for a lot of youths.
According to Dr. Tiwatayo Lasebikan, a senior resident at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Lagos, betting addiction is a mental disease with potentially debilitating physical and psychological consequences. One of the classic signs is an intense and impulsive craving to bet. Beyond that, other signs include stealing and selling possessions to bet, taking bigger and bigger risks while betting, amongst others.
Many Nigerian young people exhibit these signs. For instance, Peter bets every day. “Sometimes, when I have money and hold off from betting, I feel bad when I watch how the games for that day turn out. I would berate myself, imagining how I would have won some money if I’d played,” he said.
Also, being that a considerable number of bettors are financially dependent on parents and other sponsors, it is not inconceivable that resorting to sharp practices is one of the means they access the N3000 they spend on sports betting daily. These practices include inflating the cost of school texts, creating nonexistent fees, and using monthly allowances to bet. Some go as far as engaging in shady practices to fund their habits. For Kalu, it was “match-fixing”. He says that he sometimes tells people that he fixes matches – that is, that he can predict the outcome of games. He would then “sell” these predictions to gullible bettors and subsequently disappear when his predictions fall through.
Chimaraoke’s case is a lot more sinister. In late 2017, she noticed that she was getting debited for transactions she hadn’t initiated. Even as she made frantic efforts to resolve the issue with her bank, she already had a suspect in mind: her adopted son. “He was a hardworking boy, which was why we adopted him and his brother in the first place. However, sometime after leaving university, he got hooked on online betting. We started noticing small amounts of money getting missing in the house. Then he started stealing from me, my husband, my children. Any money left in the house was at risk. He even broke my youngest son’s savings box and took out all the money. All of these he put into online betting, hoping for a big break.” She wasn’t wrong. At the bank, she confirmed that her son had connected her debit card to an online betting platform and was getting debited from it.
A String of Broken Relationships
An addiction to online betting is not without its consequences. The most telling effect is on the finances; bettors are broke almost always. But more so, it impacts relationships between gamblers and their friends and loved ones.
Chimaraoke eventually had to send her adopted son away, cutting ties with him and his brother. “It was so sad,” she said, “he had such promise. But I just couldn’t deal with his addiction anymore.”
Peter says that at some point, his parents no longer trusted his financial capabilities. No one sent him on errands anymore for fear that he would use the money to place bets. “I cannot count how many times my parents have embarrassed me because of my betting habits. Sometimes I feel useless because I do not know why I can’t stop,” he said.
Some people have managed to stop betting. For instance, Porl, another bettor, quit before he got sucked in too deep. But the story isn’t quite the same for a lot of others. Kalu says, “Anytime I say I want to stop betting, I come back stronger. I could be with my friends and suddenly imagine a strategy I could employ to make money. Of course, the strategies never worked, but that hasn’t stopped me yet,” he said. “I don’t think I am addicted to online betting; I know I am.”
[NOTE: Names with asterisks have been changed.]