In the film, “In The Grip of The Gambling Mafia”, criminologist Jean-Francois Gayrand makes this observation: “Many states and federations all over the world, have been slow to understand and perceive the fraudulent aspects of many contemporary sports. They simply died. Without idealising sports as it was in pre-modern or ancient times, we must admit that today these professional sporting activities have become shells.
“When sport turns into a shell, it undergoes a certain degeneration, a corruption. It’s like that of wrestling. These days, nobody thinks that wrestling is anything other than a great fake, a somewhat comical act, nice to watch, but nothing more.”
If you are a football fan, is there anything more unsettling than to suspect that the result of the match you are watching is pre-determined by the financial interests of a handful of criminals?
In light of the exclusive reports published in the Daily Nation this week regarding football match fixing in the country, it is fair to conclude that we have a monumental problem on our hands.
This is organised crime whose tentacles spread from rich, shiny metropolises to the remotest villages of the world and whose profits match those of the drug trade.
Even the countries with the strongest governance institutions have problems with it.
On Tuesday, we learnt that Fifa, the world football governing body, is investigating Harambee Stars defender George Owino who they believe pocketed millions of shillings from a convicted match fixer to throw national team matches.
This comes in the wake of the decision by Kakamega Homeboyz to expel their Ugandan coach, Paul Nkata over similar allegations.
Fifa’s investigations of the Owino matter are ongoing and there is, therefore, not much we can say about him at this stage.
Our focus should be on the broader problem of match fixing arising from the world wide betting industry and what implications this has on our way of life.
To understand the corrosive nature of this vice on our body politic, you only have to take into account some views expressed in sections of social media about the comprehensive victory Gor Mahia scored against Egypt’s Zamalek in a group stage Caf Confederation Cup tie last Sunday.
Gor won 4-2. Some people, pointing out Zamalek’s high form at home where they top their Premier League and Gor Mahia’s recent pedestrian performances, opined that the game was fixed.
That is the damage that betting and its twin, match fixing, causes.
Now everything must be doubted.
A friend of mine, a lifelong cricket fan, told me some time ago that he no longer watches the matches of the world’s top cricket league, the Indian Premier League, because of allegations of match fixing.
“It is contaminated,” he said. “I will feel foolish getting excited about something unreal.”
That vices such as compulsive betting are as old as the first sports tournaments does not make them any less odious.
The damage they do spawns criminality and mental health.
Society must defend itself against them. Good people in organisations such as Fifa and the International Olympic Committee are forever swimming upstream against them.
They sleep with their eyes open because they know that one moment of laxity means that the whole edifice of organised, clean world sport, will come tumbling down. Organised crime knows this as well, and repeatedly makes incursions into these organisations by corrupting the weaker of its officials. It is an eternal war.
Kenya’s situation is dicey.
It has the finest laws on paper and more than enough institutions to enforce these laws.
Maybe it was done deliberately, to have several organisations doing the same work so that fighting among themselves is the work itself and not the crime.
Here, we excel in peddling the mantras related to good housekeeping — zero tolerance to corruption, integrity and accountability, good governance, etc.
We even have corruption-free zones! But you know nothing about Kenya if you are surprised to find that some are in fact corruption-processing zones where you can get a file to disappear or organise to get top marks in exchange for sex.
And now, although our work and social spaces are overheating with talk about a war on corruption, wardens behind walls in Kamiti, Naivasha and Shimo la Tewa prisons are still wondering in which country that war is taking place since they haven’t booked in any notable new guests. It’s still the same mandazi thieves and necklace snatchers.
And, of course, we have centres of excellence whose core values can make you need to sit down and take a rest after reading them; such is how breath taking they are.
What we lack are the practices to go with the talk. The societies from which we borrowed all the nice terminologies about good governance actually mean them. Presidents, Prime Ministers and big corporate chiefs actually go to jail when the law finds their conduct wanting.
If you want proof of this, ask Sepp Blatter under what circumstances he left the presidency of Fifa. And many IAAF and IOC members, too.
In Kenya, there doesn’t seem to be any failure, any dereliction of duty, or any loss to the public that is big enough to merit more than a game of musical chairs. More about this shortly.
I don’t think I had a single white hair on my head when I last agreed with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. But his decision to ban sports betting, even if he was pandering to the demands of a key religious constituency, was still bold and commendable.
Sometimes, you just have to put your foot down. Betting in the technological age is different from betting in the era of the dial-phone. It’s a whole new ball game and it is time to rethink the inordinate hold the industry has on the sports sector.
Currently, it is practically the case of a hostage taker and a victim suspiciously suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
Before the stories about match-fixing burst into the open, sports betting was already one of the most researched activities of Kenya’s social life.
Stories of illnesses associated with it, such as depression, have gone hand in hand with positive undertakings such as sports sponsorship.
The sponsorship that betting companies offer to sports organisations has also come under close scrutiny with critics saying the amounts they put back in the sector is a pittance compared to what they rake in profits.
With none of the players in this sector being publicly-listed, it is difficult to authoritatively say how much they make in profits.
No other phenomenon has swept regional football in recent times as has online betting.
The fortunes of local and European clubs in international competitions which used to cause domestic strife pale in comparison to the challenges introduced by betting.
News reports of an entire generation of young and not so young people hooked to a habit that ruins family economies while in extreme cases taking away lives have given rise to an intense national conversation about the place of this activity in the social life of the country. Some have called for its banning while others say it is not only a legal business activity, but a legitimate one too.
Evidently, Museveni decided that Uganda could do without whatever money the international sports betting companies were pouring into his economy.
And so, too, did Sivakumar Madasamy, a hardened Singaporean who, like Wilson Raj Perumal in George Owino’s case is a convicted gambling fraudster.
In “In the Grip of the Gambling Mafia,” he tells his interviewer: “You close down all betting companies – then you see real football. But I think this will never stop. This is just like prostitution; it’s the same thing. How can you stop prostitution, the oldest business in the world?”
The stories of George Owino and Paul Nkata represent a problem that is either the tip of an iceberg or a bud that must be nipped before it grows into a flower.
If our football is to be saved, if indeed our generation of young people and the sports they play is to be saved, this must be all hands on deck for law enforcement and other concerned institutions.
The desperation of this situation cannot be overstated.
Although the bold and the greedy still try to ensnare some big fish, match-fixing predominantly targets average footballers.
Fixers cannot afford the Messis, Ronaldos and Neymars of the world with their billions and so they go for lower level players who can influence the outcome of matches to fuel their betting profits.
If law enforcers cut one head, they discover the hydra-headed monster has grown several more.
It is exacting even to the most sophisticated crime buster.
Where does this leave Kenya with its weak institutions?
A speech made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel literature laureate, has knocked about inside my skull for all the 28 years since we returned to multi-partyism. He was critiquing the Western society we always look up to and borrow from. I share below is a small passage:
“Today’s Western society has revealed the inequality between the freedom for good deeds and the freedom for evil deeds.
“A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times, he is constantly rebuffed by parliament and the press. He has to prove that his every step is well-founded and absolutely flawless.
“Indeed, an outstanding, truly great person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind does not get any chance to assert himself: dozens of traps will be set for him from the beginning.
“Thus mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints. The defence of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenceless against certain individuals …. It is time to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”
If it transpires that a very big person is involved in match fixing, do you think Kenya can successfully prosecute him?