Uganda: Student dropout rates increase as gambling surges

By Godfrey Olukya

Posted on Friday, 12 February 2016 14:00

Hundreds of students are dropping out of school after failing to pay their tuition fees following losses in sports-betting related incidences. “They think they can double the tuition money given to them by their parents if they bet, but in most cases they lose,” Francis Magaya, an officer at Uganda’s education ministry, said.

some sports betting companies do not mind when underage children bet

Magaya said more than 120 cases of gambling related dropouts were reported in the last three months, and he believes there are many unreported cases, since betting is based on mass losses and very few wins.

Echoing Magaya’s fears, a headmaster at Excellence High School in central Uganda, Ambrose Mukasa said more than 20 students drop out of his school alone annually after gambling away their tuition fees. European football leagues are most popular for young gamblers.

With Kampala having more than 200 high Schools and 10 universities, the gambling problem could affect thousands of pupils across the capital. “A good number of these young men lose their money in betting and end up failing to complete their studies” Mukasa said.

“Nine students have already have dropped out of school [since the beginning of the academic year] after they placed bets with their tuition fees and lost. One of the unfortunate boys ran away and up to now his parents are looking for him”, a senior teacher at Saint John Secondary School in eastern Uganda, Paul Mubagadi told The Africa Report.

Ugandan regulations, stipulating that betting centres should not be set up near schools or public places and a law barring children below 18 from gambling, are widely disregarded. However manager of Best Bet limited at Kampala’s Kabalagala suburb, Alfonse Mugwira, says that while some betting houses do their best to respect laws prohibiting underage betting they usually come up against brick walls.

“Some 16 and 17 year-olds look like they are over 19 years and when asked to confirm their age they tell us they are above 18 years,” he said, “some sports betting companies do not mind when underage children bet because they are simply after making money.” Uganda is rolling out a nation-wide identification card programme this year, but it is uncertain if calls to have them serve as a prerequisite for acquiring alcoholic beverages, among others, will be heeded to.

Apart from a public statement from Information minister Jim Muhwezi in December 2015, where she did not explicitly mention underage or student betting, and a 5 per cent tax imposition on licenced gambling operations in the 2015/16 national budget, a concerted government effort to curb the practice among underage children is lacking. The National Lottery Board’s rules prohibit minors from betting.

Suicide attempt

The scourge has been replicated in neighbouring South Sudan, where Juba-based education officer, Stephen Aleko has decried the growing practice among students. “There is need to sensitise our children on the dangers of diverting school fees to sports betting,” he said, adding “several students believe they can entirely survive on it.”

In a recent development, 19 year-old student, Elvis Leku lost over 8,000 South Sudanese pounds in a bet on a European football match. “After losing the money in betting, and fearing to face his parents to ask for more money, he attempted to commit suicide by taking rat poison,” his head teacher, Jeremiah Epenu said.

But unlike in Uganda where local NGOs have been working to raise awareness, Aleko says there are no official indicators pointing to gambling related high school dropout rates in South Sudan. “The number of students and pupils involved in sports betting is not certain. However, what is known is that these school-going students engage in betting, especially in western matches.”

From only one sports betting centre in 2007, Kampala and its suburbs now count over 200 licensed betting centres. In the meantime, unlicensed betting centres are mushrooming across the country as the attractiveness of the culture of a quick buck grows, not only among young students but also the masses of unemployed youth.

A rallying call from some of Kampala’s prominent residents – including Sheikh Ramandaha Mubajje, a Muslim cleric, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Uganda and Henry Kyambadde, who sits on the boards of several Kampala schools – has yet to produce the strict regulations or the complete ban of sports betting they are seeking.

Henry Kyambadde, who said he had received reports from several schools and universities about the growing trend of underage and student betting, told The Africa Report by telephone, he is planning to “work with other stakeholders [to make] parliament to come up with tough laws that will make it difficult for students to bet.”

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