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Billions at stake as State and betting firms dig in over ban

By Allan Mungai | July 13th 2019
Interior CS Fred Matiang’i inspects a guard of honour mounted by Administration Police officers when he arrived at the National Police College in Embakasi A campus, Nairobi yesterday. (Collins Kweyu, Standard)

The multi-billion shilling betting industry was thrown into a limbo last evening after mobile operators closed down mobile money and SMS short-codes run by the firms.

Safaricom’s suspension of M-Pesa pay bill numbers and SMS short codes for some 27 betting firms among them SportPesa and Betin sparked anxiety in the Sh200 billion industry which has been in a push and pull with the State.

Punters who tried to place their bets using Safaricom got messages advising them to contact their betting companies.

Thousands were caught in a mad dash to withdraw their money from the digital wallets held by the betting firms to beat a 48 hour window provided by the Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB) on Wednesday.

Reuben Chengo, who has an account at Sportpesa, said he tried placing a bet in the morning in vain.

“I called Safaricom and was told that those paybills were suspended yet I have Sh70,000 accumulated therein,” Mr Chengo said yesterday.

According to figures provided by Safaricom and betting companies, there are about 12 million active betting accounts, majority of which are now suspended leaving their users in limbo.

The closure of the betting accounts will impact heavily on millions of Kenyans who have made betting an occupation.

Kennedy Otieno, 36, a jobless father of two, told the Saturday Standard that betting on professional sports was his sole career which has since been dashed.

“I am registered with five betting companies – Betwin, Betin, Betpawa, Sportpesa and Betway - and for two years, that has been the only thing I can call work,” he said.

“I went to university and obtained a degree but for nine years I have never been employed. Betting is the only thing that I can call a job, I place bets and use the winning to put food on the table, pay for my house and keep my children in school. I have even bought a car from betting,” Otieno said yesterday.

Scrambling to withdraw

Despite betting providing him a lifeline, Otieno was among thousands of Kenyans who were yesterday scrambling to withdraw their money from betting wallets.

Users who tried using the paybill number were advised to consult their betting company.

“Failed. Dear customer, this paybill is unavailable due to the government directive to suspend betting paybill numbers. Kindly contact your betting company,” Safaricom told users yesterday.

BCLB has not renewed the 2019/2020 licences for 27 betting firms it says have not met the renewal requirements.

Sportpesa issued a statement yesterday describing the move by BCLB as malicious and in contravention of a court order.

“This is the latest in a series of abrupt measures from the BCLB that only serve to discourage and disrupt business.

“The prejudicial process that has been followed by the regulator has the potential to drive the industry underground as well as have far reaching repercussions on the social and economic agenda of the country,” the company said.

A similar message was sent out to its account holders, informing them that Sportpesa was working to restore normal operations.

In the five years that Sportpesa has been in operation, it has become the most ubiquitous in sports betting, straddling football, boxing and rugby.

The company is the biggest in Kenya and has sponsorship deals with local and English teams. Just last week, the company jetted English Premier League club Everton into the country for a match with Kariobangi Sharks.

Earlier in the week, Betin Kenya secured temporary orders suspending BCLB’s decision to withdraw the firm’s licence. Betin said yesterday that it had not broken any regulatory requirements and conducted its business according to the law.

“We will continue to address this matter with industry stakeholders, the regulators and the government,” the company said.

Yesterday’s offensive was deemed the most dire of government’s resolve to clamp down on the industry which has registered exponential growth in the last four years.

In May, the High Court quashed a directive by BCLB to ban outdoor advertising for gambling. The board also sought to make it a requirement that all outdoor advertising be presented to it for review before it is approved for publishing.

All adverts were also supposed to contain warning messages about the consequences of addiction to gambling.

Yesterday, a tough talking Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i directed regional and county police commanders to shut down and arrest operators of unlicensed gambling businesses.

“Anybody operating should show regional and county commanders a license from the board. If not, they are engaging in crime,” said Matiang’i.

The CS was speaking at the Administration Police Training College in Embakasi Nairobi where he witnessed the integration of about 24,000 APs in the National Police Service.

[Additional reporting by Michael Chepkwony]

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