Interior CS Fred Matiang'i

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i.

| Salaton Njau | Nation Media Group

Matiang’i: Bulgarian betting firm owners are not coming back

What you need to know:

  • At least 17 foreign directors of betting companies were deported that week
  • The betting industry, adds Matiang’i, had also penetrated other institutions, including Parliament and the Judiciary, so taking the door to them came with a lot of pressure.

If you asked any of the betting billionaires deported last year, they’d tell you that Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i is one of the most unpleasant men they had ever met. In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Nation, Dr Matiang’i reveals how he kicked them out of the country in a major clean-up of the betting sector, and the fightback that ensued.

He also reveals that despite some of the shadowy directors being subjects of investigations in Europe, some powerful individuals in Nairobi expected the Kenyan government to “sit quietly and clap its hands” in their honour.

“The day I deported some of the Bulgarians I was under a lot of pressure, including from people within the government,” Dr Matiang’i says.  “The reason regulatory work did not work in the past was that everybody was bribed. They were paying everybody. Funny characters. Shadowy people. People from within government were the ones telling me ‘you are high-handed’.”

Dr Matiang’i says that once he got the green light from President Uhuru Kenyatta to sweep the sector clean, he started his operation by securing the Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB) to ensure he had an uncontaminated team he could trust.

“We started by disbanding the board of BCLB because, frankly, I could not deal with the board that was there. We needed people who have the spine to stand up against regulatory interference,” he says, adding that for years the sector was heavily manipulated by players.

To sanitise the industry, he went looking for Cyrus Maina, a former Nairobi Provincial Commissioner, and asked him to take over the chairmanship of the board. He then named Peter Mbugi, a former District Commissioner, as its Chief Executive Officer. In them, he saw two pairs of safe hands.

“We thought that since they are people from our sector, they understand discipline and the outcry from across the country about betting and gambling that had gone out of control,” Dr Matiang’i says.

Filed tax returns

After chasing away with the old board, he directed the new team to follow the law, especially in July of 2019, when licenses would come up for renewal. And, with that, the trap had been laid.

“I asked the board to ensure that every company that came before it during renewal went through due diligence, to find out who the people who wanted licenses were, whether they had filed their tax returns, and if they were foreign nationals they had to produce genuine documents.

“When the reviews were done, I asked for an additional review of all foreigners. Because these are people engaged in money laundering, they could not pass the test. I told the Director of Immigration to deport them immediately,” Dr Matiang’i says.

He kicked out the directors of Betin — the father-son-duo of Domenico and Leandro Giovando — as well as BetPawa’s Nikolai Barnwell amidst a protracted licensing row that grounded 27 firms. Some of them got their licenses back shortly afterwards.

Dr Matiang’i argues that, without licenses, the Bulgarians did not have any other reason to stay in Kenya since their work permits were based on the business they were doing.

“In any case, if you came to Kenya, because you applied for a license to do some business, and now since the license is not there, the grounds on which you are in our country no longer exists.”

At least 17 foreign directors of betting companies were deported that week.

“All these criminals we had allowed into the country — Russians, Bulgarians... and so on —to do all manner of things, cannot do the same things in their countries,” he says.

Today, before licenses are given, applicants are vetted by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and other law enforcement institutions like the Financial Reporting Centre (FRC) and the anti-fraud unit at the Central Bank.

The betting industry, adds Matiang’i, had also penetrated other institutions, including Parliament and the Judiciary, so taking the door to them came with a lot of pressure.

“Betting and gambling is a bribery gravy train. Have you seen how, when you send a Bill to Parliament that involves betting and gambling, Members of Parliament dance around it?” he poses.

Crackdown

The Interior CS says when he started reforms, similar forces like those he met when he dealt with the rampant cheating at the Kenya National Examination Council came together and started fighting back.

“I was told between the betting industry and Matiang’i, we want to see who blinks first. This is the same thing I was told about the Kenya National Examination Council, that you can’t stop cheating. I was told in Parliament when I was Education CS that the examination cheating is a Sh5 billion industry that you can’t stop. I told them we have not even made an attempt. Let us attempt and fail.”

The crackdown extended to the counties and estates where he ordered regional commissioners to destroy slot machines in an operation that netted dozens of foreigners who were shipping into the country the machines without permits.

He says with a sense of finality that the Bulgarians will not be setting foot back in the country any time soon.

“One thing that everyone can rest assured is this: we are not going to allow money launderers and criminals on international watch lists to come around here under the guise of betting and gambling, to destroy the economy of this country. The president is resolute on the matter. I am following his instructions. He has said I want that sector cleaned, my work is to follow what he says.”

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