Dirisa Rwelekera, a 36-year-old boda boda cyclist operating in Makindye, a Kampala suburb, was in August 2012 approached at night by two men who asked him to take them to Mukono District.
Unbeknown to him, the two men were robbers masquerading as passengers. The men struck him on his head with a blunt object when they reached an isolated place in Mukono and made off with his motorcycle, phone and money.
“They were two, one pretended to be drunk and the other was supporting him. When we reached Mukono, they told me to stop at some fenced house. From behind I felt a hammer hitting my head and one of them told me not to scream or he would chop my head off,” Rwelekera says.
The owner of the house near where the crime occurred came to his rescue, notifying the police and Rwelekera, who sustained severe head injuries, was taken to Mulago National Referral Hospital.
Rwelekera was lucky to be alive. Many people, such as Dickson Ssentongo, a journalist, Violet Nalubwama, a student of Kampala International University, Rigan Amanya, a boda boda cyclist at Seeta, Grace Bukenya, a taxi driver in Mukono and Saadi Kalyango, a staff member at Vincent Alex Primary School in Mukono, had been clobbered to death by criminals using blunt objects, especially iron bars commonly known as butayimbwa.
Mulago hospital was by mid-2012 recording five cases of people hit with iron bars daily according to Dr Michael Edgar Muhumuza, a consultant neurosurgeon.
“In a month, we would get more than 150 cases and half of these victims would die because infection would enter their brain through the broken skull,” the doctor said.
Residents of Mukono, Seeta and Bweyogerere, where the iron-bar wielding thugs concentrated their heinous crimes, lived in fear.
Apart from the boda boda cyclist whom the thugs attacked and stole their motorcycles, pedestrians were also waylaid by the ruthless thugs at night and in the early hours of the morning. There have also been cases of victims reporting to have been hit by boda boda cyclists they hire to transport them.
The spate of crime by iron bar wielding criminals was reminiscent of the mid-1980s when it was rampant in Jinja District. Back then, every evening, people were waylaid as they returned home from work and were killed. Their bodies would be found in the morning.
At the time, there were claims that it was politically instigated to discredit the then government of Milton Obote. However, the police attributed the much recent crimes to robbers.
For almost four years, police battled to stop the iron bar-wielding criminals. Hundreds of suspects were arrested but the crimes continued. There was an atmosphere of fear and desperation.
People who used to go to work as early as 5am changed their schedule to between 6am and 8am. Those who loved being at entertainment places such as bars until late in the night were compelled to start leaving early and some people stopped going to entertainment places at night due to fear of being attacked by thugs on their way back home. Shop owners also started closing their business premises early.
According to Mukono residents, the iron-bar crime incidents created a lot of mistrust between boda boda cyclists and their passengers. Some boda boda cyclists reportedly resorted to transporting only people they knew during night hours and stopped working at 9pm.
Other boda boda cyclists refused to take people to isolated places and areas where they were not conversant with for fear of being assaulted and robbed by their ‘passengers’, while others stopped working at night.
In March 2012, the Mukono Municipality legislator, Ms Betty Nambooze, threatened to lead a demonstration over what she called police’s failure to stop iron bar wielding criminals in Mukono.
She made the remarks at a meeting convened after a resident, David Sempijja, a boda boda cyclist at Katogo Village, was struck dead by criminals and his motorcycle stolen.
The meeting held at Mukono Town Council was attended by security operatives and boda boda cyclists.
Ms Nambooze blamed the numerous incidents where people were clobbered and robbed by iron bar-wielding criminals in Mukono District, on laxity by security personnel.
“If another person is attacked by iron bar hit men in Mukono, something akin to Walk-to-Work (protests) will come back here until the President intervenes. We cannot just sit and watch our people dying like that,” Ms Nambooze said.
The then Mukono District police commander, Mr Seiko Chemonges, dismissed claims of laxity by security personnel, saying they were doing their best to fight crime.
He added that the major problem they were facing was lack of cooperation between police and the community.
Mr Chemonges claimed that efforts to fight crime were being frustrated by political leaders who went to police stations and demanded the release of suspects, claiming they were innocent. He called upon residents to work with the police to fight crime.
Most of the boda boda cyclists alleged that the police was corrupt, adding that criminals they hand over to the police are released after bribing the law enforcers. They threatened to lynch suspected criminals because the police had allegedly failed them.
However, Mr Chemonges cautioned the cyclists against taking the law into their own hands, adding that those who participate in mob action would be prosecuted. He said the police set free suspects who they failed to get evidence against. He said efforts to prosecute suspected criminals were hindered by the residents’ reluctance to be witnesses in court.
According to the then Kampala Metropolitan police spokesperson, Mr Ibin Ssenkumbi, earlier investigations into the crime indicate that the thugs were mainly boda boda cyclists, some petty traders and unemployed youth.
“From the beginning, the targeted groups were well known. It was the first area of concentration in our investigations. These hit men were robbers of petty cash, phones and motorcycles,” Mr Ssenkumbi told the Sunday Monitor.
Those attacked in Mukono in 2012 include, the Coca Cola official Muhamood Mwanje, Moses Mugisha, Sarah Aidah Nakioguli, Paul Sembatwa, Eric Kalule, Geoffrey Sekanyo, Moses Mwesigwe and many others.
The Kampala Metropolitan Commander, Mr Andrew Kaweesi, launched an operation against iron bar criminals in mid 2013. The operation was conducted around the Northern Bypass and Bweyogerere in Kampala, Mukono and Seeta.
The operation was conducted in conjunction with local council leaders, residents and other security agencies. Several new police posts were established throughout Mukono and police intensified patrols.
More than 100 youth were arrested in the three-month operation in Mukono. Mr Joshua Wambi, a resident of Mukono said: “We never got to hear of Iron bar hit men again.”
Mr Ssenkumbi attributed the success of the operation to vigilance of residents and hard work of police personnel.
“With support of crime intelligence and the community police, we were able to identify the perpetrators who were operating within the public and rounded them up. Most of them were unemployed youth, boda boda cyclists and some dealing in petty business in the areas,” he said.
He added: “We were able to establish that some of the perpetrators travelled from their residential districts and committed the crime in a different district.”
Mr Ssenkumbi said the police infiltrated undercover agents among the criminal gangs to identify them.
“It took working with these people and acting as one of them for the real suspects to be identified,” he said.
Currently between one to two iron bar criminal cases are reported in Kampala metropolitan area in about three months, according to the Kampala Metropolitan Police statistics.
By the time the operation was conducted, the iron-bar wielding criminals had spread to other parts of the country.
The criminals attacked people in Gulu, Hoima, Kabale and Mbarara districts, killing several people and stealing their belongings.
The police used a method similar to what they conducted in Mukono to crackdown on iron bar criminals in Gulu, Hoima, Kabale and Mbarara districts.
According to the police, some of the criminals who were terrorising residents in the above mentioned districts had fled from Kampala and Mukono districts during the operation against them.
According to a police report, the rate of crime by iron bar wielding criminals began to decrease at the beginning of 2013 and had by the end of the year been tremendously reduced.
According to the 2013 Police Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety Report, 3,620 (both aggravated and simple) robbery cases were investigated, compared to 4,194 cases in 2012 giving a 15.8 per cent decrease.
Cases of simple robbery (where lethal weapons were not used) were 2,585 compared to 3,126 in 2012 giving a 20.9 per cent decrease, while cases of aggravated robbery (where lethal weapons were used e.g. firearms, knives and machetes etc) were 1,035 compared to 1,053 cases in 2012 hence a 1.7 per cent decrease.
Of the total cases of aggravated robbery, 47 cases were robbery of motor vehicles, 242 were of motor cycles and 207 were robbery of cash.
A total of 207 cases of robbery of cash, amounting to Shs4,292,801,500 were registered in 2013, compared to 236 cases amounting to Shs3,701,204,400 in 2012 giving a 14 per cent decrease.
Wamala region registered the highest number with 29 cases, followed by Rwizi (23 cases), Greater Masaka (20 cases), Kampala Metropolitan Police (KMP) East (18 cases) and KMP South (14 cases).
Districts that registered high cases included Mbarara (18 cases), Mityana, Kiboga, Iganga and Jinja registered 10 cases each.
In 2013, 242 cases of aggravated robbery of motorcycles were investigated compared to 241 cases investigated in 2012 hence a 0.4 per cent increase.
KMP East and Busoga East regions registered the highest number with 30 cases each, followed by KMP North (21 cases), Rwizi (20 cases), Wamala (19 cases) and Albertine (18 cases).
Districts that registered high cases included Iganga (21 cases), Kira Road (18 cases), Mbarara (16 cases), Kaabong, Bukwo and Old Kampla Division registered 13 cases each.