Kenya’s match-fixing scourge

Financial incentives and a lack of legal consequences make the country a target for football match-fixers. But are betting companies contributing to the rise in match manipulation?

Wilson Raj Perumal, who is regarded as the world’s most prolific match-fixer in football’s recent history, boasts in his book Kelong Kings that he is the “unsung hero” of Nigeria’s qualification for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Perumal claims to have helped the Super Eagles win their final qualifying group game against Kenya’s Harambee Stars in Nairobi. 

Reported cases of match-fixing on Kenyan soil have escalated since then, attracting world governing body Fifa’s ire. It begs the question: Is the thriving gaming industry in East Africa’s biggest economy, whose betting companies are the predominant sponsors of the sport, a contributing factor?

Perumal, a fugitive fighting extradition to his native Singapore, where he faces match-fixing charges and other related crimes, also takes credit for Honduras’ return to the global showpiece. “Ferrying Nigeria and Honduras to the World Cup was a personal achievement,” the 55-year-old bragged. “I felt that I had accomplished something important and that I finally sat at the very summit of match-fixing – a true Kelong King.”

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Heading into the final round of the qualifiers, Nigeria’s fate was not in their hands. Consecutive draws against their main group B challengers, Tunisia, and a slim 1-0 win over Mozambique at home did not inspire confidence. This left the Super Eagles needing not only to win in Kenya, but also for the Carthage Eagles to draw or lose in Maputo for them to qualify for the first World Cup staged on African soil. 

In his confession, Perumal said he did what he did not because he cared whether Nigeria made it to South Africa or not, but because “in the Nigerian camp was our long-standing business relationship”.

Perumal promised an unnamed Nigerian football executive to deliver a win in Nairobi and incentivise Mozambique with a $100 000 bonus to fight tooth and nail not to lose to Tunisia. To execute the Nairobi mission, which he came down to oversee personally, Perumal had three Kenyan players on his roster, two of whom he was sure would start the game.

“You’ll get your three points against Kenya. That, I can guarantee. I have some players in the Kenyan team,” he said.

Kenya lost 3-2 to Nigeria, even though Perumal had demanded a clear 2-0 win. In Maputo, the gods of football were smiling down on Nigeria. The Mambas pulled a shocker, edging out pre-match favourites Tunisia 1-0. Meanwhile, in Nairobi, the glaringly easy goals the Harambee Stars conceded that afternoon before a capacity crowd at Moi International Sports Centre raised eyebrows even before Perumal’s confession. 

Not the first time

Nine years after the match, Fifa banned former Kenyan international George Owino Audi from all football-related activities for 10 years and fined him $15 000 for conspiring with, among others, Perumal to “manipulate and influence the result of international matches involving Kenya”.

Owino, a defender, played the entire match against Nigeria. “The formal disciplinary proceedings into the aforementioned individuals stemmed from an extensive investigation into various international matches that Wilson Raj Perumal attempted to manipulate for betting purposes,” Fifa said.

But this was not the first time Kenyan football had made the headlines for match-fixing. In a tightly contested race for the 1999 domestic league title between Mumias Sugar FC and Tusker FC, which went down to the wire, Mumias, who needed a 7-0 scoreline against Kisumu All Stars in their final match to be crowned champions, ended up pumping a whopping 10 goals past their opponents – who were more than willing to concede – to run away with the title.

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Subsequent investigations proved everyone’s fears that the match was indeed fixed. But despite Mumias Sugar FC being suspended and stripped of the title, which went to Tusker, vested interests and the politics of the day ensured they never served their suspension and played in the league the following season.

Fast-forward to the epoch of online sports betting, an industry in which Kenya is among the leading countries in Africa, and cases of match-fixing are again on the ascendancy. Sports betting is big business in Kenya, owing to a highly developed mobile money transfer network that eases the taking and cashing out of bets, and the ballooning number of betting firms has them falling over each other to sponsor sport, specifically football.

Betting firms sponsor up to three divisions, including Kenya’s top-flight. And a number of clubs, notably the two most famous, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, have betting companies as their shirt sponsors.

‘Brought by greed’

“In Kenya there is a lot of match-fixing. It’s only that people are afraid to speak. As Homeboyz, we have a strategy of catching them. Match-fixing is brought by greed,” said Cleophas Shimanyula, chairperson of Kenyan Premier League (KPL) side Kakamega Homeboyz FC, in an interview with Capital FM Sports in 2019.

Shimanyula had turned on the heat, sensationally charging that the Ugandan pair of coach Paul Nkata and midfielder George Mandela were responsible for his club’s poor run in the early stages of the 2019-2020 KPL season as they were deliberately throwing away games for cash. Fifa would later ban Mandela and three other players for four years each for their involvement in match manipulation. Nkata survived the purge.

Whispered in low tones before, with the authorities often quick to deny its existence, rampant match-fixing in Kenyan football is no longer a taboo topic. A goalkeeper who did not want to go on the record as he is still active in the game admitted to having been approached to throw away a game for a decent fortune. His name pops up quite often in match-fixing debates, but he maintains his innocence.

“At one time I received a call from an anonymous number asking if we could do ‘business’, but I declined because I wasn’t actively playing then,” he said.

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Fifa’s eyes remained glued on Kenya as the media also narrowed in on the subject. In one case that the media followed closely, Ugandan journalist and self-declared football intermediary Ronald Mugisha was arrested at a hotel in Kisumu in western Kenya as he allegedly attempted to fix a KPL game. This was in February 2021. His aim was to pit cash-strapped Western Stima FC against KCB FC.

“Some of my players approached me saying there are some individuals who want us to fix the game,” Stima chairperson Laban Jobita told the media.

Jobita recorded the negotiations on a phone. “I heard everything that was going on in the room and how he wanted to make a down payment of Ksh70 000 [just over R9 200]. He promised to pay Ksh600 000 [around R80 000] once the deal goes through as planned.” Mugisha was charged in a court of law. But strangely, Jobita did not proceed with the case and said little about his reasons, leading to Mugisha being acquitted.

However, in what is probably Fifa’s biggest call against match-fixing in Kenya, it ordered in May that Zoo FC be relegated from the KPL. “The Fifa disciplinary committee finds the club Zoo FC responsible for activities related to manipulation of football matches and competitions,” it said. Like Kakamega Homeboyz, Zoo FC had in the previous season released some players over their alleged involvement in the match-fixing vice.

Match-fixing hurts betting companies

Despite burgeoning cases of match-fixing in Kenyan football, gaming expert Tom Bwana is adamant that betting firms, like clubs, are victims of the vice and do not engage in or condone it. “When betting firms know that a match has been fixed, they remove it from their roster because they will lose money,” he said.

Bwana worked for SportPesa, which was the biggest betting company in Kenya before the government revoked its licence for various violations. He dispels the notion that betting firms sponsoring sport is a contributing factor to increased match-fixing incidents.

“Yes, they have made it more appealing for punters to stake through advertising, but that’s as far as it goes. Match-fixing hurts them even more.”

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Award-winning journalist Jeff Kinyanjui, who has covered the subject extensively, agrees with Bwana. “Match-fixing only benefits unregulated markets, mostly in Asia, but not local betting platforms where the highest amount one can stake is capped.”

Kinyanjui attributes the surge to two factors. Players in Kenyan football leagues are paid poorly. Some clubs go months without paying their meagre wages, making players vulnerable to promises of quick money through match manipulation. And Kenya lacks the legislative framework to punish the vice. 

“How do you convince a player who has gone months without pay and has responsibilities to resist an opportunity to make quick money through match-fixing, if approached?” he asked. 

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Perumal has served jail terms in Singapore and Finland for match-fixing. But this is not possible in Kenya, one of his playgrounds, because the country is yet to criminalise the offence.

“As of now, we have no local policies, rules nor regulations promulgated by the authorities specifically to combat the vice,” said lawyer Ochutsi Munyendo. “We can only borrow from the practices and precedents by other jurisdictions best for taming it. We can also borrow from Fifa regulations and domesticate.”

Like Kinyanjui, Munyendo is calling on parliament “to come in hand, legislate to outlaw match-fixing”.

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