Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.
The 29-year-old guy in this story placed his first bet over a decade ago as a university student. At first, it was for the thrill. It quickly became a coping mechanism. Then an addiction. He thought he was in control but his debt profile and troubled relationships proved something else: He was not.
What’s your earliest memory of gambling?
I lived with my grandmother for a while with some of my older cousins. They were much older and played dice and rubber games and bet against themselves. The first time I saw gambling on the screen, I was watching a movie with an uncle and a casino scene came on. He explained how Russian roulette and the other games worked, and how people made money from them. I found it fascinating. It felt like a sure way to make money. Besides, the people I saw looked like they were having fun.
When was the first time you acted on this?
Towards the end of my first year in secondary school. I started taking decks of cards to school and signing my classmates up to play and place bets. Although I was investing my money into buying cards, I never staked or made money from it. I was only trying to recreate what a casino looked like. I did this from 1999 to 2002. I got bored in JSS 3 and abandoned it. That side of me didn’t resurface until a few years later when I went into sports betting.
In 2007, I travelled to the UK for my A-Levels. I was 17, but one of my closest friends who was two years older than me was into gambling. There was no football game he wouldn’t place a bet on. At first, I was only helping him research the best games and odds. When he won, he spent the money on us. I liked the distraction it created. The following year, I asked him to teach me how it worked.
I placed my first bet in November or December 2008. I selected the games and I staked £5. I didn’t win anything in the first month. I eventually won £30 after a couple of losses.
The following week, I staked another £10 and won £120. I remember this because I was coming to Nigeria for the Christmas holidays and my winnings went into buying gifts for my family.
Back to back wins.
Yes. I thought I had learned the trick. I spent about two weeks in Lagos before I returned to school. It was a struggle to continue gambling because school became overwhelming, and I couldn’t keep up with the whole process. Occasionally I’d find some loose change and put it in a game. If I won, I celebrated and if I lost, I kept it moving. It was money I could afford to lose.
What happened after that?
I finished my A Levels in August 2009 and came back to Nigeria. A few months later, I returned to the UK for uni. It took 8-9 months before I gambled again.
Why was that?
I found other distractions. Parties, girls, and my local football team. The Champions Leagues final in 2009 was my return to gambling. I was watching the match with a couple of friends when an advert from a betting company lit up the screen. It was something like “Bet £10. Predict the next goalscorer and win £1000.”
My friends and I immediately raised the money. I created a profile on the website, funded the account, and placed the bet.
Did you win?
Nope. Right after that, another sign flashed advertising new odds. We could 10X our stake this time if we predicted the number of corners left in the game. We put £50 in and lost that one too. My friends gave up. But me? I wanted to make the money I had lost.
I returned to gambling regularly. I was getting £600 from home every month and was placing bets up to £100. I adjusted my spendings to fund my gambling. But once I reached the £100 threshold, I was done for that month. I was partly playing for the thrill of it and in the hopes that I might recover all the money I’d lost over time. There were the occasional wins too. This continued until 2012 when I finished my degree.
I guess that was when I got addicted.
Why do you think so?
While waiting for my masters, I got really bad news from home. My mum had fallen sick and my family kept it a secret from me. It was a tradition for her to visit me at the beginning of every school year. When I picked her up from the airport, I knew something was wrong. She broke the news to me on the car ride to my apartment, and it hit me so hard.
Do you want to talk about it?
It was cancer, man.
I’m so sorry.
Thanks. My parents decided that she would be treated in the UK. My sister was also preparing to move to the UK for school. My dad insisted that I remain in school while my mum got an apartment in the UK. I was splitting my time between her apartment and my campus. It was a tough year, and I needed a distraction.
You went back to placing bets.
Yes. And it worked for a bit. When a match was on, I didn’t think about anything else but my stakes. I had started betting on other sports too, so it was a 24-hour process. Football in the afternoons, basketball, hockey and baseball at night.
My monthly income at the time was £750: £600 from my dad and £150 from my job. After spending money on groceries and travel tickets, which was about £250, the remaining £500 was for gambling…
Luckily, my mum got better the following year but my dad had spent about £30k on her treatment. I don’t know how my dad did it but I respect him for how he worked his ass off and carried the family on his back.
I get what you mean. But now, you had no reason to gamble anymore?
No, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t go a day without it. I finished my Masters in 2014 and returned to Nigeria. After a couple of weeks, I realised that I wasn’t ready for Nigeria yet. I moved to the US in January 2014 because a work opportunity opened up. As soon as I settled in, I researched betting companies and found out that online betting was restricted in the city I was in. For about two months, I stayed off. In March, I found a VPN to bypass the location restriction and went back to it.
The only thing that changed was that I was earning about $3500 every month. My major expenses were rent and groceries, and these ran into $2000 in a month. I was saving $1000 every month too. I returned to staking small sums of money — $5 here, $10 there, but they stacked up to $200 in a month.
I spent a little over a year in the US before I finally returned to Nigeria in October 2015. I thought I was coming back to a job. The uncles who promised me jobs in Chevron or Shell didn’t come through.
I’ve seen this movie before.
Hehe. I had about $10k in savings, so that was good. I started my NYSC that year but I was alternating between Nigeria and the US because of my girlfriend. When I finished NYSC, I took another break from gambling and travelled across Europe and America. However, I was spending a lot of money on plane tickets.
During one of those visits to the US, I met an uncle — we weren’t related but I called him uncle. He had a clearing and forwarding business and needed someone on the ground in Nigeria to help clear his goods at the port. I thought I could do it, so I agreed to it. The plan was I would pay the agents at the port and once the goods were cleared, I would get my money with an additional cut. The arrangement worked fine the first three times. But everything went sideways the fourth time.
He needed about ₦40m to clear his containers. I promised to find at least half of the money. I told a few friends what I was up to and vouched for the guy. I raised ₦20m, added ₦3m from my savings and gave it to him. Uncle disappeared after that.
The goods landed in Nigeria a couple of weeks later, and I went to the port to clear them. But there was no arrangement to move them out of the port. That meant I had to pay more money every day for storage.
That wasn’t my biggest problem — the people I promised their money back started disturbing me. So I needed cash, and fast. In the middle of this, I would open the newspaper and see an advert from a betting company: someone posing with a cheque of ₦20m, which they won from placing a bet with ₦200. I was like, maybe I should start gambling again since I was technically in debt and needed to raise money.
I reached out to an uncle, and he sent me about ₦700k. All the time, I was thinking about the multiplier effect of sports betting. If someone could win ₦10m with ₦100, then it should be easier for me to turn ₦700k to ₦70m. I just needed to have one good week and I’d make enough money to clear all the debt at once.
How did that go?
Terribly. I placed a bet with ₦200k at first, hoping it would return ₦4m. It didn’t. Then I went all in and staked the remaining ₦500k on basketball games. I lost all of it in a night. I was back to square one again.
This is scary.
I was very desperate. I started borrowing more money from other people and giving them conditions that were impossible to meet. I raised another ₦3m in the following week, cleared ₦1m from the debt and gambled the rest of it away. I was winning insignificant amounts too, but ultimately, I was always back to 0. It became a cycle and it lasted for months.
We had incurred an additional ₦3m on the port bill and my debt profile had risen to ₦35m in only a few months. I was tired of the whole thing and decided to bring my grandmother into it. She was the one I trusted to talk to my parents on my behalf. Unfortunately, she died before I could tell her about the whole situation.
This is how I lived during that period: if I made a new friend, I would ultimately ask them to loan me money and use it to place bets in the hopes that I’d get the money back and return it to them. I wasn’t gambling casually anymore — I actually needed it to make me money. But it just wasn’t working.
Did you ever talk to anyone that you might be dealing with an addiction?
I actually told a couple of people but they brushed it off. I remember someone telling me “Don’t worry. Your eyes will clear.” I locked up after that and decided that it was my mess to clean.
How long did this last?
About 5 months. Within that time, I gambled away ₦15m. That’s an average of ₦3m every month.
Wild! How much was your debt profile at this point?
It had risen to ₦45m. It became harder to borrow money from people because I had used up all my goodwill. I pretty much went into the dark and avoided all my friends. Some of my close friends finally managed to contact my mum and informed her that I might be in trouble. My mum invited them into our home, and I was forced to tell them about everything.
How did your parents take it?
They were very upset. If my dad had a gun, he would have shot me. But they also wanted to put an end to it as soon as possible. My dad asked me how much I owed and I stupidly lied and told him it was ₦35m instead of ₦45m.
A few days later, he asked for a list of people I owed money and cleared everything. Till today, he claims that he paid the ₦35m from a portion of my inheritance.
But fresh start, yeah?
Yes. I started actively job seeking and got a job in financial services in January 2018. My starting salary was ₦180k. But remember I was still owing about ₦10m. I was committed to clearing that myself. I would take ₦50k out and put the rest in my savings to raise the money.
However, in April 2018, I ran into an old acquaintance. I visited him at his house one day and he talked about how he rented and furnished the place from his winnings from gambling. Like that, I started thinking about it again. I was like maybe I lost all that money because I was placing the bets myself. I told him I had ₦500k I wasn’t using and looking to turn it into ₦1m before the end of the month. He agreed to select the games for me.
I won ₦200k on my first attempt. I should have taken it slowly but the following week, I put the whole ₦700k into it. And I lost it. The moment that happened, I knew I was done.
That’s what finally did it for you?
Man, I had made significant progress between January and March and couldn’t just fall into the trap all over again. Besides, the tension between my parents and me was at a peak. My friends had removed me from our group chats, and it was incredibly awkward whenever we ran into one another. Also, I’d started staining my girlfriend’s white because we rolled in the same circle and the gist had reached her. She broke things up that same year.
That’s a lot.
Yeah. So, when I lost the ₦700k, I just knew I had to cut my losses and move on totally.
Whew. What’s happened since then?
I kept my job and got a couple of raises. I was earning ₦250k in 2019, so it was very easy to save. By the end of the year, I completely cleared my debt. I should add that some of the people I owed pardoned some portion of the debt.
I had nothing in my savings though.
I returned to gambling.
The lockdown was the trigger this time. After the second week of lockdown, I got bored and started staking money on virtual games. Nothing more than ₦1k though. What I do now is that at the beginning of every month, I send ₦5k into a separate account. If I lose the ₦5k before the end of the month, that’s it.
I had a stroke of luck last year and had about ₦300k in winnings between June and September. I took ₦200k out and sent it into my fixed deposit account. That’s how I approach it now.
The plan is to keep it in control?
Yeah, I’ve realised that I might not be able to stop completely, but I can control the way I gamble. I mean, I started as a casual gambler, then it became a coping mechanism before it blew into an addiction. I think I’ve returned to doing it casually and not expecting anything from it. I’m in a better place now. But imagine my parents weren’t there to clear the bulk of my debt?
I don’t know, man. What aspect of your life does gambling make you feel guilty about?
The stress I put on my family. My relationship with my parents and my sister has been strained since that time, and we are only just beginning to return to the old days. I can’t randomly ask my sister for money without her asking for intricate details. If an unknown number calls my mum repeatedly these days, she thinks it’s because I’ve gambled someone’s money away or I’m in some money trouble. They don’t completely trust me anymore, and it’s my fault.
That’s why I need to move out of the house as soon as possible. This was supposed to happen last year but I had to buy a car.
I had an accident and my last car was totalled off. I’m actually not sure how I survived. About ₦5m — most of my savings — went into buying a new car because of work.
Sorry, man. Speaking of work, how’s that going these days?
I’m still at the same job and my salary has increased to ₦380k. I don’t have any major expenses at the moment, so I’m saving as much as I can.
What does your running costs look like every month then?
I’ve built my savings back to about ₦1m between the time I bought my car and now.
That’s great. What do you wish you could be better at financially?
Unlocking new ways to make more money, especially in forex. That would get me to my goal faster. I’ve registered for digital marketing and coding classes. We’ll see how it goes.
What has your experience with gambling done to your perspective of money?
I hate how much importance we attach to money. I think people give money way too much respect. It was how I couldn’t cut my losses and let go before things got out of control.
Uhm. What about your happiness levels?
I’m currently at a 5. I’m not dissatisfied but I’m also not extremely happy. But I will take it. I’ve been at my lowest and I know how that feels. At some point, I couldn’t afford data without borrowing money from someone. On the other hand, some people earn considerably less than I do but have a better quality of life. They cut their coat according to their size, which is something I should have done earlier.
I’m curious, what do you think your life would currently look like if you hadn’t been addicted to gambling?
I would still be with my ex, and we would probably have started talking about marriage. We broke up because of the whole mess I got myself into. If I had also put all the money I blew away into streams of investments, I’d probably have a strong portfolio now.
Ah, right. Did you ever get in touch with that “uncle” again?
Oh yes, I got in contact with his sister. He ran into a wire fraud situation in the US. He’s currently in prison. I think he’s getting out next year.
If you’re interested in talking about your Naira Life story, this is a good place to start.
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