Kampala- A month ago, Mulindwa Ali Ganaafa, a student at Kampala International University (KIU), stopped a taxi outside the university gate in Kansanga, a city suburb, at around 8.30pm.
Ganaafa asked whether it was heading to Old Taxi Park from where he would board another that heads to Kawempe, where he resides. The taxi tout, commonly known as a conductor, answered in the affirmative.
In the taxi were about five other passengers and he was offered a seat next to the conductor.
When they reached at the stage near Clock Tower, the two other passengers; an expectant woman and a breastfeeding mother, disembarked. Ganaafa remained inside the taxi with two other men, who occupied the back seats.
On taking a closer look, he realised the other passengers behind had frail looks and seemingly intoxicated.
“I became worried. I changed the sitting posture so that I could see all the passengers. I tried to switch on the inside light but it was faulty and I noticed something was wrong,” he recounts.
Ganaafa says the driver then parked in a dark spot on Ben Kiwanuka Street. In a blink of an eye, the taxi was surrounded by other goons who punched him as they robbed him clean.
“I lost the wallet which had Shs170,000, a university ID and a National ID. My phone was not spared either. The taxi immediately drove off and I did not get chance to notice the number plate. I left the scene bleeding from the mouth,” he explains.
In a related incident, Abdul Tumwesigye, a blogger, survived being robbed in a taxi he boarded at Equatorial Mall on Kampala Road.
Tumwesigye entered the taxi after he heard the tout calling passengers going to Mulago and Kyebando, Nsooba Central.
“I stay in Mulago and when I heard the conductor calling passengers going to Mulago, I did not bother to ask because I had often boarded from that stage. I was offered the front seat and I comfortably sat,” he says.
As the taxi approached Wandegeya traffic lights, the tout asked Tumwesigye to tighten the door. As he concentrated on locking the door, his fellow passenger in the co-driver’s seat started checking his pockets.
“I hit him with an elbow. I tried to open the door to move out but it was being held by the conductor. Lucky enough, a traffic officer parked his motorcycle a few metres ahead of us. I made an alarm, calling for his rescue,” he recalls.
Tumwesigye says the conductor hurriedly opened the door and he was pushed out by the passenger who was checking his wallet. They drove very fast and moves towards the Makerere-Nakulabye Road.
“I almost hit my head on a sign post. I got some scratches in the palms since I used a lot of energy to prevent my head from being hit on the sigh post,” he says.
Tumwesigye did not lose anything because he was wearing a jean with front pockets where he had kept his wallet and phone.
“From that day, I swore never to board taxis at Equatorial Mall, especially during night hours. I no longer board taxis that offer me the front seat in late evening hours,” Tumwesigye says.
Kampala Metropolitan Police (KMP) spokesperson Luke Owoyesigyire confirms the above tricks used by thugs to rob passengers in taxis.
“We have arrested and prosecuted many thugs who use taxis to rob passengers. In all these cases, we have noticed that victims are always offered the front seat. They passenger is then told to tighten the door which they intentionally opened to switch his or her mind so that they can rob his items,” Mr Owoyesigyire said.
He also lists others ranging from use of ropes, which they tie around the passenger’s neck, to using chloroform.
Mr Mustafa Mayambala, the leader of taxi drivers in Kampala, says robberies in taxis started around 1998 and increased in early 2000s when some people bought new taxis purposely to use them in robberies. He recollects that thugs could rob passengers and afterwards hide vehicles in compounds of powerful people in security and government.
“In early 2000s, new taxis could be used to rob passengers since most people prefer boarding taxis in good condition. We got information from their allies and we tipped off the police. But police have found it difficult to fight the vice because vehicles used in such criminality are owned by well-connected people,” Mr Mayambala says.
Although Mr Owoyesigyire does not have statistics on the number of goons who have been apprehended and prosecuted over taxi robberies, he says such cases were common last year, especially in areas of Ntinda and Luzira in Nakawa Division and Nansana Municipality in Wakiso District.
“These cases can be anywhere because these thugs keep changing operation venues to avoid being noticed by victims. The cases we have handled show thugs rob passengers in taxis during lunch time hours and evening time, especially between 7pm and 9pm,” he says.
A detective at KMP records desk says more than 37 cases of in taxi robberies were recorded in 2017, of which 118 suspects were arrested and prosecuted in courts of law.
The detective cites one case of a woman who was robbed at the Nakawa junction in a taxi she boarded at Kiyembe stage adjacent Jinja Road Police Station.
“The lady boarded the taxi at Kiyembe and she was offered the front seat. When they reached at Spear Motors junction, a thug, disguising as a conductor, tied a rope around her neck and the others robbed all her belongings,” the detective says.
The woman reported the case at Jinja Road Police Station and Flying Squad Operatives tracked the taxi and impounded it five days later.
“There were cases where passengers were made unconscious and woke up dumped in a bush. All their property had been stolen. Thugs use fake number plates, which they often replace after committing crime,” Mr Owoyesigyire says.
Mr Mayambala adds that they have discovered some of the thugs are part-time businessmen and students.
“We are sometimes surprised to find the people robbing passengers are people who are operating stalls in markets during day time but resort to robbery in the night hours. Some are students and we have arrested many, with the help of police and their accomplices,” he says.
Mr Owoyesigyire advises passengers to be suspicious of vehicles that give you the front seat. He also cautions passengers to always record the vehicle number plate or take its photo before boarding.
Mr Mayambala accuses courts of often giving lighter sentences to culprits of taxi robberies.