Passengers feel comfortable boarding taxis that are almost filled, thinking criminals cannot have the guts to attack them in the presence of other travellers.
Ms Noreda Atuhaire, who was travelling on the Nakawa-Ntinda road in Kampala, had the same believe. But she was wrong.
The robbers who steal in taxis were also aware of the passengers’ fears. They cracked their nuts to find ways of giving their victims confidence that the taxi they were boarding was secure.
On 5 May, 2010, when Ms Atuhaire boarded a taxi plying the Kampala-Nakawa-Ntinda route, the robbers had already put in place ways that would give her confidence that she was in a safe taxi.
The thugs had hired a number of women who sat in the taxi to give an impression that it was a safe place for women.
Soon after boarding the taxi, Ms Atuhaire was attacked by the thugs. They robbed her of her property before throwing her out of the taxi.
Police officers were confused when she told them that the taxi had a number of passengers who never bothered to intervene as the crime went on.
Ms Judith Nabakooba, the police deputy political commissar, who was among the officers that handled the case, recalls that they were could hardly believe the story.
“We thought that she had concocted a story to get a police report about her lost property,” Ms Nabakooba recalls.
Police, with the help of taxi operators, carried out an operation and impounded the taxi they suspected was used by the robbers. It was intercepted on the road near Nakawa, a Kampala suburb.
The officers detained the occupants of the car who included Vincent Luwemba, Robert Ssimbwa, Vincent Matovu and Denis Kyambadde. But the women in the taxi were quick to deny any links to the suspects, saying they were just passengers.
“The women were smartly dressed and they looked very innocent. We had believed their story since they also claimed to be victims. But as we were about to let them go, the victim [Ms Atuhaire] came in and identified one as the suspect,” Ms Nabakooba says.
The suspects were all pushed in police cells.
Ms Atuhaire’s case opened to the police a gang and probably new tricks that would have gone on for years without being notice.
Police learnt that the criminals were hiring taxis from genuine operators.
After photographs of the suspects appeared in the newspapers, people claiming to be victims flooded Jinja Road Police Station the next day.
One victim identified Flavia Babirye, one of the suspects, as the one who encouraged her to ensure that the car door was tightly closed as her two mobile phones were being stolen.
Babirye gave up. She admitted to being part of the group that was robbing people in taxis, but said she was also lured into the crime by a friend.
“I was worried about engaging in the crime, but my friend told me that our work would be just to sit in the taxi and pretend that we are passengers as the men robbed the victims. We would get [paid] at least Shs20,000 a day,” Babirye said later.
Ms Christine Wamala, a victim who lost Shs200,000 and other valuables in a taxi around Banda stage on the Kampala-Jinja road, pinpointed Rose Nakamya who she claimed she saw in the taxi before she lost her property.
Babirye’s confirmation left Nakamya, Diana Namagembe, Nashirah Nabisubi, Sarah Lunkuse and Eva Nalubega with no options. They were produced in the Nakawa Chief Magistrate’s Court and charged with simple robbery before they were remanded.
It was eight months later that the Nakawa Chief Magistrate then, Mr Deo Ssejjemba, convicted them and sentenced them to eight months in jail. The suspects pleaded with him for lenience, insisting that the time they spent on remand helped them to reform.
The magistrate accepted their plea and considered their time on remand, which meant that they would be released that same day.
This was the first case of taxi robberies that the State had secured a conviction. With a conviction that was widely publicised, the taxi thugs retreated, at least for then.
How passengers single out a ‘wrong’ taxi
Criminals deal with a situation on a case by case basis.
Flying Squad operatives say if criminals have a stolen bag in which they suspect the victim will automatically know that it was taken before disembarking, they just push the victim out of the taxi.
Such reports prompted many passengers to fear boarding taxis occupied by few male passengers, especially at night.
This being in their minds, the passengers then preferred boarding taxis that were nearly full. And when it came to taxis occupied by women, passengers would quickly fill the vacant seats.
Mr Onyango says taxi thugs are still wreaking havoc in the city but not as active as they were five years ago.
“Even last week, when our Flying Squad team was on their normal routine in Makindye Division [in Kampala], they saw someone struggling to free himself in a taxi. Armed Flying Squad officers stopped the taxi, only to find that he was a victim,” Mr Onyango says.
Three suspects admitted to robbing passengers’ property and by the time police arrested them, they had robbed at least Shs70,000 from passengers.
Mr Onyango says since Utoda’s contract ended, there is no one to regulate taxi operators which has made it impossible for them to track taxis involved in such crimes.
“You find a taxi that commits crimes at night in Luzira operating in Kajjansi during day. The next day the criminals will operate on Bombo Road. It becomes very difficult to track the taxi,” he says.
Earlier tricks used to rob passengers
The taxi thugs started the new trick of hiring people to act as passengers after the public become aware of the faulty-door tricks they were using.
The thugs would hire taxis whose front doors they tampered with, in that it would be difficult for the passengers to lock them.
The criminals would then move around the city centre and whenever they found a passenger, they would tell him or her to sit in the front seat, a place preferred by many passengers because it is convenient to alight and also has fresh air.
When the victim had just settled in the seat near the door, the taxi would start moving. The conductor would then pretend to show concern for the faulty door, saying it was not locked and would swing open and hit other cars.
The victim was then sent into panic and would concentrate on ensuring that the door is locked.
“The more they try and fail to lock the door, the more they lose concentration on their property,” says Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman Patrick Onyango.
The criminals then exploit the confusion to unzip the victims’ bags, and when they are done, the thugs stop the taxi and claim that the door lock has a problem and they cannot continue with the journey. Most victims never immediately know that their items have been stolen.
“In many instances, it is very difficult to find the suspects because many of the victims board taxis before recording its registration number plates. So they just tell us that they were robbed in a taxi without giving us other details,” Mr Onyango says.