In the summer of 2019, the Cabinet Secretary for the National Treasury in Kenya, Henry Rotich, proposed a 10 percent excise tax on any money placed down for a bet, coinciding with the Kenyan government’s decision to shut down a number of virtual mobile money wallets for alleged tax evasion. The official purpose was to curtail the negative consequences of excessive gambling, but in practice it has left millions of Kenyans using these accounts unable to withdraw or deposit money.
The idea that gambling acts as a gateway to other vices, leading to alcoholism, poverty and suicide, is rooted in a half-truth, one that sees gambling as a cause rather than a symptom of an already weak economy. With regards to Africa, some sociologists and political scientists have suggested that gambling’s appeal to young African men comes from a desire to emulate the extravagant wealth displayed by religious and political figures, the result of a get-rich-quick mentality that seeks to step around a laudable Protestant work ethic.
Setting aside the patronizing bias of this theory, it also fails to explain the complexity of the gamblers’ agency and their valid attitudes towards the economic landscape of their respective countries. Writing for the London School of Economics blog, Mario Schmidt spent months with Kenyan gamblers in rural and urban settings, and posits that participation in gambling is viewed as a legitimate means of making money. For many Kenyans, gambling doesn’t hold the same negative connotations precisely because the “respectable” economy fails to provide adequate and consistent employment. The argument that gambling leads Kenyans down a path of financial self-ruin misses the fact that many gamblers already start out in a weak position of economic stability.
Schmidt builds on this premise to suggest that Kenyans who partake in gambling are exercising a form of protest against what they see as a kleptocratic and nepotistic political economy. Gambling is less a shortcut to wealth than it is a way to attain wealth without having to buy into a middle and upper class characterized by inequality.
Sports betting is one of the most popular forms of gambling. One could argue that young Nairobians betting on footballs matches is not that different from older women in the arid western Kenya planting maize in this era of climate change. Placing bets on sports teams intelligently requires analysis of a variety of statistical metrics and close observation, but unlike other jobs where higher effort yields more money, the amount of effort put into gambling practices doesn’t always translate into success. Farmers can plant their maize before the onset of the rainy season, relying on generational knowledge and age-old practices, and still yield a poor harvest due to factors outside their control, such as crop-killing pests, terrorism, and inter-tribal conflict.
In such a chaotic economic scenario, why should gambling face harsher government restrictions?