Walking downtown in Kampala through Ben Kiwanuka Street, I meet Esther Mwiza, whose phone had just been snatched through a commuter taxi window in a traffic jam near Shoprite.
I accompany her to a police post near police fire brigade headquarters to report the case.
However, a police officer at the post instead tells Mwiza to take heart and work to replace her SIM cards, indicating that it was ‘mission impossible’ to bring the snatcher to book.
We decide to try our luck at the new Nakivubo Police Post, but she literally receives similar advice from the officers here.
“My quest to find justice diminished at Nakivubo. I found three other victims with similar complaints and indeed, I had to give up” Ms Mwiza says.
Kampala dwellers allege that the snatched phones end up in places well-known to police officers, but they have literally failed to offer a lasting solution.
Many known dark spots in Kampala, as pointed out by the police in 2016, still exist yet they are still the same areas that people keep complaining about.
Places such as Ben Kiwanuka Street, Clock Tower, Kibuye stretch, Namirembe Road, Yusuf Lule Road, Nakivubo Mews and Mackay Road, among others, are among those reported to be dark spots.
Phone theft happens to be the most popular crime on Kampala streets. It is seemingly regular for a phone or phones to be snatched in traffic jam or at public events.
Joseph Kinene, a vendor on Nakivubo Road, explains that during traffic jam, phones are snatched through car windows and are usually snatched by people on motorcycles.
Much as some phones are protected with encrypted passwords, a move that would frustrate thieves, the trend continues to rise.
Annet Nakityo, a mobile money operator, says at Clock Tower, criminals snatch phones and duck into Nakivubo Channel, making it hard for victims to dare pursue them.
Earlier this year, police records revealed that at least 38 people report mobile phone thefts in Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono districts each day.
What happens to stolen phones?
It is evident that most phones that get snatched are hard to recover even when they are encrypted with passwords to make it hard for thieves to re-use them.
Moving into phone shops in Kampala, you will find that most shops have a mechanic who claims to offer services that include phone factory resetting and unlocking, among others.
Isaac Mukiibi, a phone dealer at Kizito Towers in Kampala, reveals that most used phones in shops are assembled using a pool of accessories picked off various phones.
He says most accessories that hail from high end phones and genuine phones are harvested from stolen phones by mechanics who deal with city phone snatchers.
While visiting one of the phone mechanics at Galiraaya Plaza, I present to him an IPhone 4 series and I convince him that I bought it from the street and that it had a password.
The mechanic then asks for Shs150,000 to get it fixed, saying the process is called “jail breaking”, which can change the firm ware.
He explains that this has been his job since 2013. He then presents a Black Berry Z10 using android platforms.
Asked if he is not worried about police, he says: “It is a business. I am not police to look for criminals. People bring phones to get assistance and we also buy those that fail so that in future, we can use some of the accessories off them.”
In most buildings around Kampala that include Cooper Complex, Mutaasa Kafeero, Galiraaya Plaza, Hanifah Towers and Kizito Towers, most phone dealer shops offer illegal services that range from changing International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI), memory and factory resetting, among others. Most phones, which are sold in known franchise shops, are sold downtown at a relatively cheaper price, which creates suspicion.
Allen Tusubira, a phone dealer at Galiraaya Plaza, says she sells iPhones between Shs300,000 and Shs700,000, depending on the capacity of the phone.
Godfrey Amooti is a vendor on Ben Kiwanuka Street and deals in old mobile phone spare parts. Amooti, who sells old phone batteries, covers, memory cards and power adapters, among others, says he buys them from willing sellers.
Just like many others who sell similar accessories on Kampala streets, they have un-matching accessories. For instance, many have original power adapters fixed with un-matching cables. In most products, accessories that are vended on streets belong to original handsets sold in authorised dealer shops.
Accessories found on streets belong to high-end phones and they include iPhone covers, headsets and chargers. A source at Mutaasa Kafeero Plaza explains that much as many stolen mobile phones end up in Kampala downtown shops, traders also have used phones that they import from other countries.
In March, police detective Godfrey Kalete from Usafi Police Station in Kisenyi, appeared before the Anti-Corruption Court on two counts of corruption and seeking gratification.
Kalete was accused of accepting Shs200,000 from a complainant as an inducement to track and recover a stolen phone, which he never recovered.
The known police procedure to recover a stolen phone indicates that once one reports a case, police issues them a reference number and tries to establish whether or not the phone is still active. Thereafter, the hunt begins.
Apparently, the job of phone tracking is in the hands of private individuals since victims believe that the police process is so formal. They believe private firms are fast and that there are high chances of recovering the phone.
Sources indicate that Uganda police phone tracking team was disbanded in April 2018, together with the Flying Squad Unit.
That notwithstanding, on October 25, police arrested more than 250 people in connection with illegal phone selling in Kampala.
While addressing journalists thereafter, Mr Fred Enanga, the police spokesperson, said the pre-planned operation was aimed at cracking down on robberies and criminality in the city.
Mr Enanga said in the raid, police seized at least 1,600 phones from Cooper Complex alone, although the operation was also undertaken at Mutaasa Kafeero Plaza, which is also an alleged destination for stolen phones.
Mr Enanga added that phone dealers help the thieves to change the IMEI number of any kind of phone even if it is locked, assigning phones with new serial numbers and later sell them off as new ones.
The 2018 Police Crime Report indicates that a total of 6,205 cases of mobile phone theft were reported. The report indicates that of the 6,205, a total of 2,085 are the only cases that were taken to court. A total 739 secured conviction and 36 cases were acquitted.