Without warning, a months-long traffic police crackdown on errant boda boda riders and taxi drivers in Kampala was abruptly stopped by Inspector General of Police John Martin Okoth Ochola last Thursday.
Days later, on Monday about 15 senior traffic officers were banished from Kampala Metropolitan Area. Simultaneously, investigations into suspected extortion and grand corruption were announced.
The affected officers, according to people with direct knowledge, were accused by boda boda riders in various petitions to the police chief of running an extortionist ring under the guise of cleaning up boda boda operations.
Off they were shuffled and transferred to far-flung districts in the countryside away from the ‘lucrative’ capital city and Wakiso district. Things were so bad that some riders were threatening to physically harm some of their alleged tormentors.
The riders, insiders say, had threatened to pour acid on former Kira division traffic officer, ASP Dickson Odongo. Odongo was shipped off to the western Uganda district of Ntungamo as officer in charge of traffic in the Monday changes.
In random interviews with riders at stages near Central Police Station, Kampala, Pioneer mall, Constitution Square, Kira Road police station, Kamwokya, Hotel Africana and at the Jinja Road traffic lights – reports daily targeting of riders without protective helmets, licenses and those carrying two passengers or a wide load emerged.
“Sometimes, they could even arrest you or impound your boda boda when you have all the requirements such a license and a helmet. They would instead accuse you of careless riding,” Matia Lubega, a rider at CPS stage, said.
He said a rider accused of carrying two passengers would be arrested and the motorcycle impounded. To regain his freedom and the bike, the rider would be quietly asked to pay between Shs 200,000 and Shs 500,000.
“If you delayed to collect your impounded vehicle or motorcycle from police, chances are you would find it either vandalised or auctioned off,” he said.
Hassan Mpagi, another rider at CPS, said the most notorious traffic police extortion rackets operated outside of CPS, Katwe and Kawempe police stations.
“On a daily basis, about 100 boda boda cyclists were detained at CPS by Julius Luyima, the head of traffic at CPS Kampala, and less than 20 percent were taken to court. The rest had to pay bribes to gain their freedom,” Mpagi claimed.
At CPS Kampala, Mpagi said riders paid between Shs 150,000 and Shs 200,000 to retrieve their motorbikes. If a rider was detained as well, then he would be asked to come up with between Shs 300,000 to 500,000 to walk free and get back his machine.
Nasurudin, a boda-boda cyclist at Constitution Square, said Luyima informally retained an extortionist squad at CPS to deal directly with the desperate cyclists.
“After Luyima brings suspects from the field, his team camps in room 35 where they are taken for statement recording. And then they start demanding money if you want your motorcycle released,” he said.
Nasurudin said boda boda cyclists seeking remedies had to use Luyima’s agents always camped inside the CPS canteen. Peter Kyomya, a boda boda rider at Acacia One stage, said police at Kira Road ask for impossible things.
He said he was once arrested for carrying two passengers and paid Shs 200,000 to be set free and get his motorcycle back.
“They asked me for the motorcycle card, yet sometimes these cards are retained by the banks or organisations that give us these motorcycles on loan but these police officers insist,” he said.
Kyomya also said cyclists are charged a towing fee for the impounded motorcycle, which ranges from Shs 20,000 to Shs 40,000. None of these fees are receipted. Money is paid directly to the officers.
Saulo Kakeeto, a rider at Hotel Africana, said traffic officers who man the streets should have also been transferred too because they make the dubious arrests.
“I think the traffic commanders had outlived their usefulness and lost direction and even forgot what they are supposed to do, I’m happy that some known officers have been transferred,” he said.
“They charge you according to your looks that day. I was arrested in Bweyogerere for carrying two passengers at around 9am in the morning. I tried to negotiate with them; they wanted Shs 60,000 but I did not have the money; so, one senior officer asked a junior officer to call a breakdown which took my motorcycle up to Jinja Road police station.”
He said he was shaken down for Shs 100,000 to secure his motorcycle and another Shs 50,000 for the breakdown. John Bosco Mulira said he was arrested at Jinja Road traffic lights and his motorcycle kept at the police booth for a whole day.
“These people [traffic police] waited for me at the lights, when I stopped with the help of UTODA traffic wardens. They grabbed me from the motorcycle and took it, I was lucky I escaped but I had to give them money in the evening,” he said.
Farouk Mulindwa said the traffic officers lie in wait mostly at traffic lights junctions of Wandegeya and Jinja road.
However, one cyclist said some of his colleagues deserved to be arrested because they are unruly. Siraje Mutyaba, the chairperson of Century Boda Boda Motorcycle Association, said the transfers were timely and very welcome.
He said the rampant arrests were irresponsible and also confirmed that the traffic officers used middlemen and UTODA wardens to extort money.
“They have brokers in plainclothes; every police station had brokers, they could arrest about 100 cyclists but only 10 could be taken to court, the rest were forced to pay bribes,” he said by telephone.