A well-built young man of medium height wearing a cap stands still opposite Makerere University’s western gate on Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road.
He makes frantic calls perhaps to kill suspicion from onlookers. It is getting dark, and there is a traffic snarl-up caused by motorists leaving the university.
As motorists manoeuvre through the traffic, a young lady screams hysterically from the side, attracting attention of passers-by.
One of our reporters, who is seated at a restaurant nearby, rushes to the scene only to learn that the lady was a student whose handbag had just been snatched.
A boda boda cyclist, who witnessed the incident, tells the student that her handbag was snatched by the man who was standing by the roadside. However, the suspect disappeared without a trace.
“That bag contained my smart phone and Shs30, 000 which I had just withdrawn to buy food. I am now stuck,” Ms Vanessa Asiimwe, the victim, says.
Our reporter later learns that several students have fallen victim to such gangs, and that the university’s main gate is one of the spots they target.
“I lost my mobile phone to those thugs last week next to my hostel [Baskon] as I tried to enter the gate. They were three boys and I couldn’t do much because they overwhelmed me. I watched them vanish,” Ms Merab Nafula, a student, said.
Ms Nafula asked police to put a booth opposite the university’s western gate, saying it will contain the rate of crime because many people have been robbed from there.
The gangs comprise young men in their prime, who move in dozens to snatch valuables from women, especially handbags, laptops and mobile phones.
They operate around crowded places, at traffic lights, university gates, and in traffic jam where they target women sitting on boda bodas.
Witnesses told Daily Monitor that these groups comprise teenagers who tend to operate between 5am and 6am, and between 7pm and 10pm.
“They tend to heighten their operations during festivities and times when there are music performances around town, which are mainly attended by university students,” Mr Abbey Lukooya, a bodaboda cyclist, said.
Mr Alex Mukisa, another witness, said the criminals move in big numbers to scare away anyone trying to block them.
He said most victims don’t fight back because they fear being beaten up.
“People even fear to rescue the victims because some of those criminals move with sharp objects and are always taking cover in case their colleague is attacked. So once you attempt to intervene, they beat you up and that’s why those criminals are rarely pursued,” he said. But Mr Mukisa wondered why police never arrests such criminals yet they commit crimes in view of CCTV cameras.
However, there are also other criminals who use motorcycles to snatch valuables from passersby.
Information gathered by this newspaper shows that the criminals fold the number plates of the motorcycles to avoid detection.
Ms Saidat Namwanga, an accountant, said she lost her handbag containing some office documents and Shs270, 000 to criminals riding on a boda boda.
“In March, I was standing next to the Uganda Museum at around 7:30pm waiting for a colleague who was coming from an event at Hilton Garden Inn. I was on phone trying to reach her, a man, who was seated on a boda boda, swiftly snatched my handbag and I fell down because he used a lot of force. Luckily, my phone was in my left hand, and that’s how I retained it,” she said.
Ms Namwanga said the experience left her traumatised for a month.
However, Mr Hassan Kyazze, the secretary of Namuwongo Boda boda Stage, claimed that criminals using motorcycles could have been planted to undermine the relevance of boda boda business.
Mr Kyazze said they (boda boda operators) have severally asked police to carry out an operation to weed out all cyclists without credentials in vain.
He said the bad elements, who joined the business, are the ones committing such crimes.
“The boda boda industry needs to be streamlined because people committing such crimes don’t have any identification. Some of the motorcycles which they ride don’t have number plates and we have always wondered how they manage to beat security. When they commit a crime, it’s the entire industry that is condemned yet some of us are genuine cyclists,” he said.
Last week, Ms Jessica Akiror, who was walking on Eighth Street, Namuwongo, past Monitor head offices, lost her handbag to criminals riding on a numberless motorcycle.
Ms Akiror said she was returning from Nakasero market where she works as a waitress in one of the restaurants.
She said the handbag contained her National Identity card, a new pair of shoes and Shs13, 000.
Kampala Metropolitan police deputy spokesperson, Mr Luke Owoyesigyire, acknowledged that there are several gangs targeting women using motorcycles.
He also confirmed that the gangs fold number plates to hide detection. He said this complicates investigations because CCTV cameras can’t identify the motorcycles.
Although he said police have managed to arrest and prosecute some of the suspects, others are still at large.
For instance, Mr Owoyesigyire said police with the aid of a CCTV camera arrested and arraigned in court one of the criminals who snatched a mobile phone from a woman at Miniprice in the city centre.
“That vice has been on for quite some time but we have managed to contain it because we have managed to bust some of criminal groups involved in such acts. However, they have now resorted to using motorcycles, but we are doing our best to break this racket,” Mr Owoyesigyire said.
Our investigations show that some of the criminals are former street children.
They are inducted by their colleagues who have since left the streets and now stay in ghettos across the city’s suburbs.
During induction, they are taught several tricks such as moving in groups, defending their colleagues when a deal goes bad, and sign language which they use to communicate when they are on a mission. They are also taught body building. We were also told that they operate from Kisenyi, Kikoni, Nakulabye, Katwe, and Kabalagala, among other areas.
Though people claim that some of these criminals give part of their loot to police, Mr Owoyesigyire dismissed the claims as baseless.
Efforts to speak to Maj Bilal Katamba, the public information officer of the Uganda’s People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) 1st Division about what Local Defence Unit personnel are doing to contain such criminality, were futile.
According the Annual Crime and Traffic Safety Report 2020, theft remains the leading offence in Uganda with 41,950 cases contributing 21.4 per cent of all crimes registered in the previous year.
Earlier this month, police arrested more than 12 suspects in Kampala on allegations of stealing phones and illegally swapping SIM cards. The arrests follow various complaints filed at different police stations.
A case file at Kampala Metropolitan Police headquarters states that about two months ago, police received information on alleged habitual phone snatchers, those who change serial numbers of phones and those who illegally swap the SIM cards on Rashid Kamisi Road, Mengo Road, Blue Room, KK Trust Hotel, Mutasa Kafero and Kisenyi Bus Park areas.