Portfolio: Game of Hope: Pool Betting in Nigeria

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From the Winter Issue "Faceoff: China/India"

IBADAN—An aging Nigerian man, who has never left his home town, describes the operations of football’s English Premier League in vivid detail. A blind man smiles as he holds a crackling transistor radio to his ear, the commentary of a live game blaring into the room. A local driver, a retired construction worker, a desperate breadwinner—these are just some of the characters who cluster around the Oje Pool House in Ibadan. This city of nearly 2 million, Nigeria’s third largest, where the savannah and the jungle meet, is just 90 miles inland from the sprawling port of Lagos.

Football betting pools, a cultural import from 1920s Britain, are popular among Nigeria’s elderly, retired workers, and the unemployed. Gamblers risk their money on their ability to forecast the results of 49 league matches played across all divisions of the English football Leagues. The matches are detailed on coupon sheets. The promoter of these football pools are mostly Lebanese or Syrian immigrants who operate with licenses issued by the Nigerian federal government. Pool agents are the link between the promoters and bettors. They are always Nigerian. 

Pool houses can be found everywhere in Nigeria. Gamblers arrive at the crack of dawn and often stay until dark, in the hope of wining the jackpot of up to 400,000 Naira ($2,515)—the equivalent of the average annual wage among workers in Nigeria. “Pool is a business of luck,” says one pool agent, Akinode Adikole. “When you win, you rejoice; when you lose, you are sad and you accept your fate.” Adikole, quite a successful businessman, has had his fair share of luck, allowing him to rent a house and buy a TV, sound system, and various other trappings of the high life.

Others, like Sangolade Raji, a local gambler, have been wagering in football pools for more than three decades. Though racking up more losses than winnings, Raji gambles in the hopes of one day winning the jackpot. Indeed, most wagerers walk away empty handed and console themselves in the company of friends who gather at the pool houses to play card games, draughts, and Ayo (a Yoruba board game).

The government has made no efforts to curb, or really even police, these activities, reasoning that they provide licensing revenue to the federal government and give hope to thousands that their meager wages might suddenly be supplemented with a stroke of good fortune. Betting pools have very much become an integral part of the Nigerian lifestyle and economy, where there is little understanding of how addictive and corrosive gambling can be.

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Andrew Esiebo is a Lagos-based photographer who has chrnoicled the rapid development of urban Nigeria. Selected for the Road to Twenty Project to form an All-Africa Dream Team, providing alternative stories from the South Africa World Cup, he is also co-organizer of "My Eye, My World," a photography workshop for children in Nigeria.

 

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