INTERVIEW: How we deal with illegal gaming operators – Lagos Lotteries Commission boss
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Seun Anibaba, the Chief Executive Officer of Lagos State Lotteries Board, speaks about the requirements for running a gaming operation in Lagos, the controversy with the National Lottery Regulatory Commission, and the problem of under-aged betting. Excerpts.
PREMIUM TIMES: Since your appointment last year, how has it been running the affairs of the Lagos State Lottery Board?
Seun Anibaba: Sure it’s been very enlightening and like any other sector, it has its own challenges. We have a great team here, and building on a foundation that was laid here. We’re just trying to improve on that, but it’s been very challenging and insightful.
PT: Exactly how challenging has it been?
Anibaba: Well, you know, like I said, it’s gaming. Gaming has its own challenges. It’s not your typical, day-to-day, straight-forward type. So we deal with a lot of stakeholders, trying to balance and protect the interests of all the different stakeholders, making sure we maintain the integrity of the industry and the sector as well. I think that’s how I will summarise the key challenges we face.
PT: In terms of scope, what’s the reach of LSLB?
Anibaba: I think the first thing to clarify is that we just oversee what happens within Lagos State. As far as the gaming category is concerned, we have what we call public online lottery, online sports betting, casinos, pools betting, gaming machines, scratch cards and other lotteries which includes promotional competitions and other games that some of these fall under. Those are the key categories we have.
PT: That’s quite a reach, how do you monitor the whole thing?
Anibaba: Yeah, well we employ what we like to describe as a stakeholder-inclusive approach. So essentially, we are constantly engaging all the relevant stakeholders that fall under each category. And our own main objective is to make sure that we have proper regulations that cut across all these categories, to maintain sanity in the sector while also making sure that we create that enabling environment to make sure that businesses thrive in that sector and also all interests of stakeholders are protected. You know, the stakers, the operators, and the public in general.
PT: One of your core responsibilities is regulating gaming within Lagos. How challenging or easy has that been so far?
Anibaba: Well, like I said it has its own unique challenges, I mean when you take Lagos for example, you know we are a thriving population, approximately 20 to 21 million. The gaming sector in Lagos is also growing quite fast. So for us, it is our responsibility to make sure that even with that growth, we maintain that sanity. There are a lot of things that we are focused on, like responsible gaming, licensing the right operators, making sure not everyone just comes to Lagos to come and open a gaming operation. So that speaks the kind of technical standards, making sure they have the right financial capabilities to run such operations here. And, obviously, making sure that we tax appropriately as well and ensuring that we are also addressing issues of illegal operators. So again, you know the kind of challenges that come with any growing sector, we deal with that. Like I said it is very important to us that the interests of all stakeholders are protected – stakers, operators and the public at large.
PT: There is this belief that heads of agencies are always under pressure to raise money for the state government. As a result, you see some of them going to extreme lengths to shore up their revenue. Do you have a financial target for your agency?
Anibaba: I think it’s important to know that as a government, the administration of His Excellency Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, the main focus is to make sure that we have proper regulations in place.
For us specifically, as Lagos State Lotteries Board, our main priority is to make sure that we have adequate regulations in place to oversee the sector, that is the first thing. But, in addition, like I said earlier, as a government we are of the belief that our main priority is also to ensure that we create the enabling environment. We don’t view ourselves as businesses. Our job is to make sure that we create the right environment for businesses to come in. We create the right gaming environment for investors to come into the sector. I think from there, as would every other revenue generating agency, of course, we have a target, but all that comes secondary to the main objective of gaming, because without creating those things we are all deceiving ourselves, investors are not going to come, businesses are not going to thrive. So all that is done with that in view.
PT: How big is the gaming business in Lagos?
Anibaba: Well, what I will say is that it is a growing sector. Currently, I think we have about 78 operators that cut across all our gaming categories. I think that really gives you a sense of the size as far as market share…. again like I said it’s a massively growing sector and we are looking forward to increased growth next year.
PT: So, how much are you making?
Anibaba: (Laughs) Unfortunately, we can’t disclose that. Like I said, it’s all growing…
PT: (Cuts in) But you can give us an idea. Maybe, between N10 billion and N20 billion?
Anibaba: We can’t disclose that. But I’m sure that there are ways we can estimate that.
PT: Okay, let’s talk about good courses projects. What are they all about?
Anibaba: Absolutely a great question. So good courses projects are projects executed using the funds generated from the gaming sector, based on laws that… there are four main sectors that these projects fall under. It’s essentially the funds we generate from the license fee, the taxes on the operators in the gaming sector and are channeled into those key projects in the four main sectors. You are probably aware of a lot of projects… some of those projects have been funded by funds generated from the Lagos State Lotteries Board. Just to mention some examples, a number of security resources, RRS cars, boats, bikes, some of the equipment they use, some of the resources provided to the Neighbourhood Watch. We have also done some projects in the education sector. There are also a number of grants that we have been funding, grants for certain charities, NGOs. But again those projects have to fall within the key sectors of infrastructure; environment; social and health; and education.
PT: Just like the controversy between the National Inland Waterways Authority and the Lagos State Waterways Authority, the National Lotteries Regulatory Commission and the Lagos State Lotteries Commission are playing out a similar script. Who is in charge of gaming regulation in Lagos State? Do both of you work together? Can you shed some light on this?
Anibaba: I don’t know if I can. First of all, you mentioned NIWA and LASWA, I’m sure you are aware of the recent court ruling on them, obviously, that’s not my expertise or my mandate. But I just want to make it clear that we got the ruling in our favour when it comes to that. As far as NLRC is concerned, I mean when you talk about our relationship it’s obviously a work in progress. We do recognise that there are key challenges, key issues that need to be addressed. For example, what is the NLRC mandate? What should the states, now I’m speaking generally of state regulators, what should they be responsible for? What should the national be responsible for? Some of these things definitely need to be clear. That said, obviously, when it comes to Lagos State, we have direct and sole regulatory mandate for what happens within our state. But like I said the relationship with NLRC is a work in progress. We are optimistic and we are convinced that for the growth of the sector some of those lingering challenges are issues that will have to be addressed sooner or later.
PT: I asked this question because twice this year, as well as last year, there were businesses that were shut down because they did not get your approval and their defence was that they had the approval of the national agency. How did you resolve those issues?
Anibaba: Our requirements are quite clear. To do business in the state, you require a license from Lagos State Lotteries Board. I think we’ve done a decent job sensitising the public. We do get a lot of inquiries and a lot of potential operators come to us. We’ve had a number of operators despite them having national licence they come to do business here, at least they run it by us, how can they start operations here? What are the requirements? So, like I said, it’s getting better. There will always be that gap there until these things are fully clarified. Because we do recognise the frustration it poses for operators and as you can probably imagine, it becomes very challenging for any state to just open their doors to anyone just coming in, you don’t know the kind of technology they are bringing in, you don’t know the kind of operations they have come to set up, and these are people that are going to be offering services and products to residents of the state. So for us to effectively regulate, we need to be on top of that entire process, licensing… but like I said it’s a work in process and we hope that some of these issues will be addressed very quickly so that this industry can grow, and not just grow but grow in the right manner.
PT: But in your opinion, what do you think is the best way to address this issue? Does it have to be solved by litigation or the two agencies just sit down and iron things out?
Anibaba: Sure, I mean, I definitely would not prefer litigation. Court process takes a long time and I think for the most part just causes further frustration and anger. I think, for a sector like this, it has to be stakeholders’ approach. We are talking about a number of states that have some form of state regulation. So you have to engage the state regulators, the operators because at the end of the day if the operators are not conducting business, then you are really not regulating anything. Quite frankly, there also has to be the political will to really want to address this because as it right now you know that the current model won’t take us far. So taking that stakeholders’ inclusive approach, engaging everyone, understanding all the issues presently and coming up with at least an initial model that works, I don’t expect the first model to be a perfect model. We have to start somewhere.
I think Africa itself when it comes to gaming, everyone knows that it’s growing rapidly. When you now bring the focus to Nigeria, and Lagos specifically, you might get a lot of interests both locally and internationally.
So for us, we recognise the need to address this lingering issue as soon as possible because we hear the frustration, we deal with the frustration day to day. So we have a vested interest in making sure that we address the ‘tension’ as soon as possible.
PT: How does LSLB protect the interests of players and other stakeholders in the gaming industry?
Anibaba: That’s a good question. So over here at the Lagos State Lotteries Board, we run an open door policy, so stakers, players are always free to walk in, email us, call us, or live chat with any grievances they have, towards an operator whatever the case may be. And you know, I think that is one of the things that really set us apart in how we deal with some of those complaints and petitions. And as far as protecting interests of operators as well, we also get involved in dealing with issues that they face in their day to day operations. And I think that open door policy has been very helpful, very effective. And you know for us we are always looking for ways to improve, to enhance our processes. Be it working on sensitising the public, we’ve spent a lot of time on that this year and we’ll keep improving on that for next year to make sure that the public is one, aware of our role as regulators. Two, the licensed operators within the state because obviously when you know those that are licensed within the state, you know who you are dealing with, you know who you should be playing with as far as staking is concerned. It’s a work in progress for us.
PT: There have been instances where stakers win games but have problems claiming their prizes. How do you handle such cases?
Anibaba: It’s a very straightforward process. First thing that happens is once a complaint like that is filed, we do our own due diligence, our investigation to find out what really happened. So obviously we hear from the player about what happened, we also write to the operator for them to present the facts. We ask the right question to enable us know what happened. And based on that, if we do determine that, in fact, a player should have been paid and wasn’t paid, we mandate that the operator pays up right away. But in some cases too, they might make a good case why… maybe there was no winning in fact and all that. After we look at the facts, we will explain to the staker, the petitioner as such. But we also have situations where we also have to call both parties in. So essentially we get to try to determine exactly what happened. But it’s something we take very serious. For us to maintain the integrity of this industry these are things that have to be addressed.
PT: In carrying out the role you just mentioned, does your agency get any kind of commission when they help a staker recover his winning?
Anibaba: No we don’t get. We are doing our job and we view it as what is expected of us, so we don’t get any form of commission.
PT: How do you tackle the problem of people under the age of 18 who are playing these games?
Anibaba: It’s a great question. To begin with, we have very strict policies against under-age gaming and before you are issued a license the operators get a copy of our terms and conditions, and policies that guide how they should run their operations. So we have underage gaming policy, it’s something we also take very seriously. Going further we do random surveillance, where we monitor for things of this nature, we have a team that do that and quite frankly you know, when we get information or tips that maybe people notice under-aged players being patronised by an operator. We do our investigation and make sure that the operator that is found culpable is sanctioned properly. And we also make it a point of duty that operators also sensitise their agents because based on the way the model works especially in the sports betting space, you have the operators and most of them have agents who are the ones dealing with the public. So the sensitisation is very important to make sure adequate disclaimers are in place, put on their websites and also on their shops, that you have to be 18 and above to play this game. And also letting them know why we have such rules in place, not just issuing those rules. It is an ongoing campaign, quite frankly with the growth we are seeing in the sector, obviously the improvement in technology and all that, that campaign has to keep going and it also has to be creative. So it’s something that we take seriously and the sanctions and fine are very heavy because of the nature of having the consequences and processes of under-aged people playing such games. We don’t in anyway encourage that behaviour so we look for ways to come hard on any offender.
PT: Obviously, it’s easier for you to enforce when players are patronising licensed operators. How will the players recognise these licensed operators?
Anibaba: Like I said, we have been doing a lot of campaigns. We’ve also increased the avenues where people can recognise licensed operators. I think the first thing is obviously our website, that’s www.lslbng.com. That is the first thing. The second thing, we launched recently an SMS channel where you send a text to 20121, you text ‘lslb’ then the name of the operator, and it will respond to verify if it is licensed or not in Lagos State. Thirdly, you can call us, our phone number and verify, and also you can email us, and you can always walk in here to our office.
PT: Have you had cases of illegal operators and you found out?
Anibaba: It’s a major part of our job. Once we get tips, it could be from any channel any of our staff comes across. Other operators and some of our licensed operator call in as well. We definitely, our enforcement team go out, do their survey, the one we determine as illegal. We definitely try to shut.
PT: Have you shut down since you resumed?
PT: How many?
Anibaba: I don’t have the number at the top of my head, but I can assure you that it’s a daily occurrence. And it’s something you find in a growing sector like this, different people trying to come in through all sorts of bad channel of that nature. So that is very important, that our stakers know how to confirm or verify that these are licensed operators because, obviously, the licensing process is not just… we are not just issuing licences for us to make money or as the case may be. We are making sure that these people have the right competence to come and run gaming operations. It’s very important that the public is fully aware of how to verify their dealing with license operators.
PT: What is your vision for the agency, what legacy do you want to leave behind here?
Anibaba: It’s quite simple. We want to, essentially, ensure that we take the sector to another level. When you think about the growth currently occurring and the direction gaming is moving in and the focus on Lagos State right now. And you now take it a step further and look at what we are doing as a whole under this administration making sure that Lagos State, in however sector you want to rank it or categorise, actually stands out by itself in many ways. So for us right now we want Lagos to be a premier destination for gaming in Africa quite frankly. So as far as legacy, it’s just to ensure that we are licensing the right operators. We grow the sector in a way that not just looking at number of operators but substance behind it, the calibre behind it. So that people can look back and say ‘wow.’ The nature of the lottery operators that operate in Lagos State, the type of casino, things of that nature. And for us when we think about gaming, it’s a form of entertainment tied to so many things, tourism, hospitality, however you look at it. Our vision is to plug into obviously the vision of His Excellency, the Governor, and by virtue of that we essentially achieve that vision together. So we think that is what I will say about legacy.
PT: Can you give us an idea, if someone wants to register as a gaming operator in Lagos, how do you go about it?
Anibaba: I think the first thing I will say is that all our requirements, gaming categories is on our website. If a potential operator wants to further clarify, you can call in or email us.