After buying cosmetics from a shop on Duster Street on Wednesday, Betty Katushabe, a woman in her late 50s, entered her car and placed the handbag containing her mobile phones on the co-driver’s seat.
Given the heat wave the country is experiencing, she started the engine and immediately lowered the window screen to get some fresh air. Then hell broke loose.
A man pushed his hand into the car and grabbed her bag. She reacted very fast and grabbed the strap on one side and both started pulling the bag in opposite directions.
As she struggled with the criminal, her foot pressed hard on the accelerator pedal and the car shot forward knocking dead Andrew Batte, a Tropical Bank manager for corporate credit.
The incident is just a microcosm of a wider endemic crime problem, growing in Kampala Metropolitan area– the theft of smartphones that affects many affluent Kampalans.
Both national and Kampala statistics show rampant thefts of smartphones, especially when motorists are stuck in traffic jams, near entertainment places and quiet streets.
The Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman, Mr Patrick Onyango, says cases of snatching Smartphones on jam-prone spots in the city are skyrocketing.
“All other crimes in Kampala Metropolitan Police area are falling except theft of mobile phones. Most of these thefts are committed during rush hours whenever there is traffic jam,” Mr Onyango said.
Snatching of mobile phones is most common along Entebbe highway, followed by a stretch between New Taxi Park and Busega township, Bombo Road and Gayaza Road.
At least 86 cases of theft of mobile phones were registered in Kampala in December last year with a total value of Shs50.3m. But only phones worth Shs5.9m were recovered. Of the 86 cases, 29 were taken to court where five convictions were secured. The rest are pending investigations or prosecution.
In January, the cases shot to 104 resulting in a total loss of Shs76m. Mobile phones valued at Shs7.6m were recovered by police. Only 32 cases were taken to court, five of them ended with convictions, four were put away and the rest are still under investigation.
The Kampala statistics for February this year show 84 cases were registered where victims lost mobile phones worth Shs47m. Police recovered phones worth Shs7.5m. At least 34 cases were taken to court and one conviction secured while the rest are still under investigations.
Police statistics show low recoveries, which is attributed to the time and criminal tactics smartphone thieves are using.
Most of the recoveries depend on skills of an individual police officer rather than the equipment availed to them by the police.
Mr Onyango said since the victims of phone thefts are targeted when they are moving and in areas whose geography they are unfamiliar with, they tend to continue with their journey and report at convenient police stations.
“Many victims want to report at Kampala Central Police Station or Criminal Investigations Directorate because they believe that the officers will act faster and that they have the required equipment to track the stolen phones,” Mr Onyango said.
Ideally, a crime is supposed to be reported where it was committed.
Bi-annual police reports for between January and June in 2014 and 2015 also show high cases of mobile phone thefts.
Where the stolen phones end up
In 2014 – between January and June – 5,287 mobile phones were stolen in Uganda compared to 4,027 that were stolen in 2015. Most of these stolen phones end up in markets in neighbouring countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Most people fall victim to thieves when they are inside vehicles and cannot get the time to pursue the criminals or seek help instantly. Even those who have attempted to chase the thieves end up being assaulted by those criminals.
Most of the cases under police investigations point at delinquents operating in groups.
The group chooses a member who appears weak in that he will not raise suspicion if he comes closer to someone holding a smartphone.
The boy will then snatch the phone from the unsuspecting victim and walk away.
“As he walks away, he is being monitored by his fellow gangsters, who are usually able-bodied. When a victim attempts to run after the boy, the gang will attack and beat him or her up,” Mr Onyango said.
Despite the heavy presence of both the police and army on all the main roads in the city, the offence still remains rampant in Kampala Metropolitan area.
Statistics from police show that over 600 suspects engaged in this type of theft have been arrested since December 2015.
“Some of these are children. They are taken to juvenile prisons where they often escape and return to their old habits,” Mr Onyango said.
He said these criminals have ventured into a new territory – at entertainment centres and events.
“They deploy spies in bars and discotheque who monitor those using Smartphones. So they wait when that person has been called and they quickly link up with their accomplices outside because they know when people are called, they tend to go out, where there is no noise, to answer their calls,” Mr Onyango said.
As soon as the victim comes out, one gang member grabs the phone and runs closer to his fellow delinquents who protect him.
Mr Ronald Nahabwe, a victim of the criminal gang, said he was calling a colleague on a phone in Nakulabye when a teenager grabbed his phone and walked away.
“At first, I thought it was my friend who was teasing me. Then I found out it was a stranger simply walking away with my phone. I followed him to get it back. That is when a gang attacked me hitting me everywhere before they vanished,” Mr Nahabwe said.
Police did not recover Mr Nahabwe’s mobile phone.
Police advised victims not to follow the thugs who snatch their phones since it may lead to death or serious injuries from retaliatory attacks by the criminals. Police advised such victims to instead inform the nearby police to deal with them.
Police said they are now deploying officers in hotspots during rush hours.
“In the morning, we deploy officers in areas we know are affected by traffic jam and do the same in the evening,” Mr Onyango said.
Notorious spots where your phone could be snatched
Ben Kiwanuka-Clock Tower-Kibuye stretch:
Taxis are often held in traffic jams for more than an hour. Most taxis, if not all, have no air conditioning which forces passengers to open windows wide for fresh air. Phone snatchers take advantage when passengers are using their phones near the open windows.
The stretch has slow vehicle traffic and has many getaway alleys which the criminals use to run away.
Ben Kiwanuka Road (Arua Park)
People operating in this street literally never go to sleep. It is always busy. But at night, criminals roam the streets. Despite the street lighting, muggers are there in big numbers. It is the main terminal for South Sudan-bound trucks.
Hoima Road (known as Namirembe Road)
It is a busy road/street with three major bus terminals, and a taxi park. Even deep in the night, public service vehicles continue to drop passengers. Criminals target unsuspecting people, snatch their property and run into slums of Kisenyi, where it is very difficult for the victims to pursue them.
Yusuf Lule Road
Yusuf Lule Road is one of the best roads in the city centre with double lanes and good walkways. It is ideally a safe place for affluent joggers in the evening. Being a shortcut from Mulago area to Jinja highway, some pedestrians use it to cut costs and time. Unfortunately, in the evening it becomes dangerous for pedestrians. Muggers carry out attacks and disappear into the dark Golf Course.
Entebbe Road (Clock Tower)
Traffic is usually heavy and slow in the evening, giving criminals opportunity to snatch phones and handbags. Their main targets are lone pedestrians and people talking on mobile phones in vehicles with lowered windows. Their gate away places are the railway line and water channels.
It is a stretch from Entebbe Road from Indian Temple to Namirembe Road/Hoima Road. Given the fact there are many police booths along the stretch, thugs snatch property and jump over the Nakivubo Channel barrier along the stream. Most victims can’t dare pursue them.
This road connects the Old Taxi Park to Nakivubo Road. Most of the people in this street are traders since it is a business hub. People often carry money or valuable property on them. Such people are targeted by criminals and it is risky to carry a laptop bag or an expensive phone at night.
This road is a short stretch from Kitgum House to Mukwano Roundabout. At night it is deserted and well- lit. Criminals at night come in groups and overpower their victims. After they have got their loot, they run to the adjacent railway line. Police officers at Electoral Commission (nearby) rarely intervene in the pursuit.
Allen Road and Mackay Road
Allen and Mackay roads sandwich the New Taxi Park on both sides. Criminals target passengers walking with valuables from or to the New Taxi Park and Qualicel Bus Terminal. The groups operate in teams of three or more. They attack their victim at once.
In the past, Kafumbe-Mukasa Road was not usable at night because of criminals. But of recent, taxi and bus parks have increased activities along the road. With the increase in night business, crime has also increased.
Unlike the adjacent Nasser Road, Nkrumah Road isn’t well-lit. The only source of light comes from shops. Lone pedestrians suspected to be carrying expensive electronics are attacked by stout criminals who escape to the railway premises which are largely deserted.
Police has banned skating and anybody found skating on roads in Uganda will be prosecuted.
Deputy Police Spokesperson Polly Namaye said road skaters who hold onto people’s vehicles snatch things from the cars.
She said skaters normally snatch laptops, phones, bags, side mirrors, bunches of matooke and charcoal from trucks.
“We have given instructions to all our traffic officers to caution the roller speed-skaters on the roads that they will be arrested. They have been banned due to public demand that many of them are thugs,” she said.