It’s noisy and emotions are charged as cheers and sounds of despair fill the air. Some even have their shirts off as they monitor the unfolding action in front of them, hoping and praying that results go their way as they clutch their most prized possession, a ticket.
But this scene is not unfolding at a sports stadium. The venue for this action is a small, dark gambling den at Last Stop, in the Dansoman suburb of Accra. There is a refrigerator stocked with beer and the bartender doubles as a bet-taker for clients sitting around in plastic chairs. There are many establishments like it across the capital.
In Ghana, this is the era of sports betting. The trend has spread furiously across the country, particularly as the English Premier League has become a sensation, and there are now about 19 registered sports betting companies operating here. The popularity of sports gambling, which comes from its relatively low risk and potential for big profits, is creating an insatiable thirst for betting that is starting to become dangerous. Despite the fact that betting might stop the odd young person from engaging in crime such as Internet scamming, some betting places do not properly check IDs, allowing youth to bet small amounts including their school fees on sports games in clear violation of the country’s laws.
Brown (not his real name) was a petty trader before he discovered sports betting and has not returned to his business since. He admits he is now an addict to the potential of making quick cash. I come here around 7 am every morning to check my picks and place my bets,? he said. ?I then spend the rest of my day moving from area to area, checking out the action and placing bets. I spend about GHC20 in all on a bet. And if I’m lucky, I walk away with a few hundred.?
Brown’s story is rapidly becoming the norm for an increasing number of youth in mostly poor areas of Accra such as Tudu, Lapaz, Circle, Kasoa, Nima and Agege, where most of these gambling dens have opened.
Betting shops are strategically located in densely populated areas of the city where large and mainly unemployed sports-loving fans can be found. The shops are normally packed to capacity with young men, especially on weekends and match days. Giant flat screens showing various sports events are a massive draw for fans. Bets can also be placed on the phone and via online channels.
Each day, betting companies offer a list of football matches and the list shows the details of matches. Players can choose to bet on 1 game, 2 games or up to 12 games. If the chosen outcomes are correct then the player wins. Players can bet any amount of cash on the outcome of a match and winnings are calculated by multiplying the value of the cash bet with the value of the odds on the correctly predicted outcome. For example, one month ago, a GHC 2 bet on Chelsea to win its match with Arsenal ? which Chelsea did ? would have led to winnings of GH 5.8.
Betting companies argue that they are offering employment to these youth. Safaribet, for instance, has about seven shops in the Greater Accra region and employs about 200 people. Upon opening in Ghana in 2013, the company declared its intention to create about 4,000 direct and 15,000 indirect jobs within three years.
Many think that sports betting is better than engaging in a life of crime or internet scamming, a previous favourite for many of these youths.
Edem, who lives at Kasoa, admits that he is an addict. He told The Weekend Globe?that his new found appetite for sports betting occupies him most days and does not allow him to focus on crime.
?I can tell you that ‘sakawa’ in my area is down these days,? he said. ?Most of the boys are too busy putting bets together. And when I use the Internet, I am checking teams or looking for information?.
This story of a newfound hobby for wayward youth, however, hides a deepening epidemic. Most of these kids cannot go a single day without placing one or several bets even on days when they have no money. And that is where the danger of this rabid addiction lies.
Speaking to The Weekend Globe, one university student recounted how he used his school fees to place bets in the hope of winning it all back.
?There was this time I had been placing bets for about a month without luck and had no money,? he said. ?As soon as I received my school fees, I took part of (the fees) and went straight to the shop to place some bets. I won’t say it was a large part, but I kept taking away from it bit by bit.?
There is also the much graver legal issue of underage children who think they have discovered a quick way to easy wealth.
The National Communication Authority, Games Commission and National Lotteries Authority together share responsibility for the enforcement of the law, which is quite clear. According to the Gambling Machines Act, ?No person shall permit any person under the age of 18 years to use a gambling machine or to enter any place in which a gambling machine is used.?
However, children in primary and in junior high schools are among the biggest clients of the betting houses. Some claim they use school fees, or even steal from parents, to acquire the resources needed to fuel their addiction. This has led to the larger question of responsibility by the gambling companies to check the ages of people who place bets.
The Weekend Globe witnessed several underage kids placing bets during a Confederations Cup match between Brazil and Italy with absolutely no questions asked by operators at a gambling shop at Lapaz. This shop is one of many that have sprung up in the vicinity. It is a beat down structure that is poorly lit and stuffy, but it serves its purpose even as it breaks Ghanaian law.
One boy, upon questioning by The Weekend Globe, said he normally placed bets for older people who did not understand the nuances or were too shy to personally place bets. He is not more than 10 years old and is still wearing his brown school shorts. He was engrossed in the game on the screen, until he was drawn away to answer our queries.
?I do this for two men in my area,? the boy said. ?They heard money can be made, but don’t want to be seen here. I take 2 cedis and I place the bets for them?.
There are several like him, perhaps spurred on by the near-mythical story of one JHS pupil who is supposed to have won GHC 5,000 at Kasoa, and was actually able to claim his winnings.
The danger is obvious in what has undeniably become a booming industry, despite the industry’s infancy in Ghana.
This article was first published in The Weekend Globe in 2013
Columnist: Godfred Akoto Boafo