I recently learned that, some time in 1997 or thereabouts, the government of Rwanda, denied a Ugandan lottery investor license to run the same business inside Rwanda.
Keeping true to the spirit of government – being the eyes and ears of the wananchi, and thus protecting the citizenry against exploitation – the government of Rwanda argued that running a lottery was not investment, but theft from nationals.
Asking people to pay to confirm whether they were born lucky to win a lottery was a magic trick to steal their resources. Lottery investors produce no wealth but they dip their fangs into the already available incomes of the poor.
In truth, this man was a merchant selling his merchandise – radios, TVs, refrigerators, electric kettles, mattresses, bicycles, (there would be a vehicle sometimes) – under the guise of them being won through luck.
Neoliberalism has its crude manifestations and, left on its own, it tends to go wild. Although markets should be left to determine demand and supply, crafty investors – producing or supporting no wealth creation – should never be allowed to dupe poverty-stricken country dwellers, and underpaid labouring urban folks and steal from them under the guise of “playing chance.”
By their nature, human beings are gullible and only become “awake” after receiving education. Slogans such as caveat emptor were meant to enlighten the buyers to beware of the things hawked on the market.
Indeed, Karl Marx’s major contribution to political economy – Das Kapital – was opening our eyes to the ways in which what capitalists call profit, is extra unpaid-for labour (labour time) that the labourer gives to his employer. Often, the labourer does so pleasantly – often after being conditioned to only giving their labour so as to earn their sustenance (and only their sustenance despite giving more labour).
Lotteries take different forms, but the secretive, privatised scratch and win tend to be the crudest of them all. Let me demonstrate the hidden and ugly life of private and secret lotteries.
With goodies in his warehouse amounting to Shs 100 million, the investor printed lottery tickets costing very little. The bait goes as this: if you are lucky, with your lottery ticket of Shs 1000, you can scratch it and win a TV set or refrigerator, which normally costs Shs 1.5m.
In fact, some people actually win the lottery exciting more and more to come and play. But note that for every 1,000 (one thousand) lottery tickets printed for scratching, the investor plants about 100 (a hundred) of them with goodies. These then keep the excitement going as the 100 winners invite the 900 to play more. All the 900 lose their money to the investor.
While the investor might lose 100 products (some as cheap as Shs 25,000), he would have earned hundred-folds more in the 900 tickets from which the players never won anything.
Lotteries elsewhere are supposed to be transparent to the point that the owner of the lottery business is also left to chance. No wonder these are never private businesses but rather, national lotteries (emerging out of the need to sustain the capitalist façade that profit-making or benefit is a reward of someone’s genius).
Recall the case in Italian football where betting companies pre-fixed game results with football clubs? Yes, the result was that while the betting companies knew the outcome of the game beforehand (they had negotiated and agreed a price), the betters relied on chance.
In the end, the betters stood high chances of losing and the companies profited tremendously. This is what happened in Uganda in the 1990s.
Now, the said businessman in Uganda had their lottery gamble run for months on. Over 1,000 gamblers showed up daily, and if 900 gamblers lost their lotteries on the daily, we may never know how much this investor earned.
But by a simple mathematical estimation, it is bonkers amounts. Today, this investor is a rich man, owns entire streets in Kampala and is close friends with the government of President Museveni.
“Tell me about your friends…” In truth, it is not fair to call these men rich but, rather, thieves of a special kind – they tend to emerge at different times and take different forms.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.