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.