Kessington Adebutu, Nigeria’s gambling mogul whose business empire has enjoyed decades of patronage as a household name across the country, has become a new target of a vast corruption investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
As part of the investigation on Tuesday, anti-graft detectives at the EFCC office in Lagos detained and questioned Segun Adebutu, son of the octogenarian, questioning him on matters ranging from alleged tax fraud to economic sabotage, sources familiar with the development said.
Anti-graft officials said Mr Adebutu’s business activities recently became a subject of their suspicion following a petition from another betting company, Western Lotto. The December 2019 petition from Western Lotto, run by politician Buruji Kashamu, asked the EFCC to investigate billions of naira in lost government revenues and tax fraud against Mr Adebutu’s Premier Lotto.
Officials said they have identified at least N5 billion in revenue losses against the government since the investigation began — directly blaming the management of Premier Lotto for allegedly shortchanging Nigerians.
Tony Orilade, chief spokesperson for the EFCC, did not immediately return a request seeking comments about the arrest and ongoing investigation into Premier Lotto and other lottery operators.
‘More lucrative than oil’
The multiple allegations of tax fraud and economic sabotage levelled against Mr Adebutu marked a remarkable tumble for one of the Nigerian bookies most powerful and admired personality.
Far known as ‘Baba Ijebu’, Mr Adebutu has been widely hailed as pioneering inclusive gambling in Nigeria and shooting it into the mainstream. Although it was only in 2001 that he registered Premier Lotto, the betting franchise that accounts for the largest share of his wealth, Mr Adebutu’s reputation as a driving force of Nigerian gambling trade has spanned decades before its commercialisation.
Segun Adebutu is only one of at least four children who are management officials at Premier Lotto, we learnt. Some of them are also top executives of the regulatory federal lottery board.
The success of Mr Adebutu’s betting exploits imbued former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s interest in establishing a federal agency to regulate lotteries across Nigeria in 2005. Several private entities have since sprung up, taking bets from multiple sporting activities, especially football.
But the raging allegations against Premier Lotto, by far the largest betting conglomerate in Nigeria, could deal a setback to the industry’s hopes for competing with banking in the financial services sub-sector, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
We learnt that several other betting companies are currently being investigated as part of the sprawling inquiry into how betting funds were being handled across the country, with the bookies being dogged by multiple allegations of sharp practices, including claims they had been withholding funds meant for winning customers in order to maximise the bank interest on such funds.
“The lottery business is now more lucrative than oil,” a source familiar with the investigation said. “What we have found out will shock Nigerians by the time our investigation has been concluded.”
No charges have been filed because more betting companies are still being investigated for similar allegations, although on a scale lower than Premier Lotto’s, an official said.
Multiple officials at the lottery commission have been notified of the raging investigation, with concerned companies already asked to submit their financial records to anti-graft detectives in Lagos and Abuja, according to documents seen by sources.
A lottery commission official confirmed the investigation on Tuesday, but accused Mr Kashamu of triggering it because he wanted to dominate a section of the betting business in Nigeria.
“What we learnt is that Buruji Kashamu said he has sole rights to ‘Ghana Games’ in Nigeria,” an official said under anonymity because the lottery commission was still considering a unified response to the EFCC investigation. “But he should not burn down the entire industry to implement his business interests.”
The official said an association of betting companies would soon meet to form a coordinated response to the EFCC investigation that was triggered by Mr Kashamu’s alleged “anti-industry practices.”
Mr Kashamu, who is wanted for an unrelated drug offense in the U.S. for which he has denied culpability, said he petitioned the EFCC about corruption in the betting industry, but deemphasised allegations of being a disgruntled player in the business, saying he had taken the matter to court and was now only concerned about the interest of Nigerians.
“All the taxpayers’ billions they diverted should have been paid into the lottery commission trust fund to build infrastructure and alleviate poverty amongst the Nigerian masses,” the politician said. “I urge Nigerians to continue to pressure the EFCC to investigate and charge all those responsible for sabotaging the country’s economy without any pity for the masses.”