A large number of northern Uganda’s population, especially the youth, are involved in gambling in the form of sports betting, gaming and slot machine lotteries. The popularity of these activities has risen sharply since the return of peace in the recovering region.
These pursuits have replaced playing cards, which men used to actively engage in while living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), according to analysts.
“It [gambling] started during the camp life where people were not engaged in productive work such as cultivation, but depended on handouts. The main activity then is redundancy, which leads to overdrinking and playing cards the whole day. Today’s youths grew up in this and it is the only kind of life they know. Women are now the bread winners,” John Muto Ono, a retired journalist, told Let’s Talk Uganda.
“During the twenty-year violent civil war in northern Uganda, people were put in IDP camps while others stayed in towns like Gulu and Kitgum. During this period many young able-bodied men were not engaged in any productive local activities such as agriculture and cattle keeping. They were subjected to humanitarian handouts from the World Food Program and other humanitarian agencies,” Cynthia Ayaa, senior advocacy and research officer with Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project, told Let’s Talk Uganda.
“As a result, many of the young able-bodied men engaged in anti-social behaviors which included alcoholism and playing cards (which is a type of gambling). When the war ended, the habit of drinking alcohol and playing cards did not stop. The children who grew up in the camps only knew how to sit around, drink alcohol and play cards. They had not learned agricultural skills or get a proper education,” said Ayaa.
“However to survive, many of the youth were looking for an easy way out, and this came in the form of betting – which was introduced by Indian businessmen who had come to region when relative peace had returned. This is how youth got addicted to alcohol and gambling. Therefore, alcoholism and gambling are legacies of the civil war in northern Uganda.”
At least 1.8 million people were forced into IDP camps at the peak of the fighting between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government troops in northern Uganda.
Most of the districts, major towns and trading centers across the Acholi sub-region – the epicenter of over twenty-years of insurgency – have sport betting halls, gaming shops and casinos.
The National Lotteries Regulatory Board under the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development notes that gambling is one of the most rapidly growing activities across the country.
Government officials say that high unemployment and illiteracy rates, the desire to get rich quickly and laziness have accelerated the rapid increase in gambling and drinking among the youth.
Dangers of gambling
Analysts warn alcohol and gambling businesses are causing harm to the population. Gambling clearly doesn’t encourage productive gains. To finance their habit, many gamblers commit crimes such as theft, sell their possessions and borrow from family, friends and loan sharks. Fraud and embezzlement are also common.
“Expenditures on alcohol and gambling drain the family financial status which makes the men fall short as family providers. It also reduces an individual’s ability to think rationally leading to reckless or violent behavior. It can also lead to suicide, which is common in Acholi sub-region,” said Ayaa.
There are also reports that sport-betting activities in Gulu have distracted university and secondary students from attending classes, leading to poor performances. Some of the students have reportedly lost their fees by gambling.
Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu District chairperson, says the government needs to put in place a law that bars students from engaging in betting activities.
However, Ayaa disagrees, saying, “There are already by-laws, but the government is failing to implement these laws. We need to put in place strict legal and policy frameworks, and ensure these laws are enforced.”
Transitional justice experts are calling on the government to double its efforts to address challenges faced in the transition period tin northern Uganda.
“Young people in northern Uganda are especially vulnerable because of the war and the gaps in education and employment that it brought,” Oryem Nyeko, communications and advocacy team leader of the Justice and Reconciliation Project, told The Uganda Record.
“The government and other actors need to find practical and constructive ways to fill these gaps, because otherwise things like gambling will [fill those gaps],” he said.
“Government is treating the symptoms instead of solving youth unemployment head-on. The YLP [Youth Livelihood Program] is ineffective. You need a whole overhaul of mind sets, teaching agriculture and attracting them from urban centers to the rural land to engage them in agriculture, not skilling or boda bodariding,” says Muto.
“We are aware of the post-conflict and transition challenges in northern Uganda. The government will continue to put programs and policies to proactively address youth unemployment, low education levels and low poverty levels,” an official from the Office of the Prime Minister, told Let’s Talk Uganda.
“Huge funds have been injected in the Peace, Recovery and Development Program, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund and Youth Livelihoods Program to respond to the reconstruction needs.”
The program being implemented under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is designed as one of the government interventions in response to the high unemployment rate and poverty among the youth in the country.
The five-year 265 billion Uganda shillings (about US$100 million) program launched on 24 January 2014 and aims to empower the targeted youth to harness their socio-economic potential, increase self-employment opportunities and income levels.