The Commute: Corruption and Danger on the Streets of Kampala

Corruption is a way of life in Kampala, Uganda’s crowded capital. Ranked 151st out of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruptions Perception Index, Uganda offers encounters with corruption in even the most trivial daily situation, such as the commute to work.

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The Commute: Corruption and Danger on the Streets of Kampala

Illustrations and Animations by Matt Huynh

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Part One: Fake Passengers | Part Two: Boda Boda Accidents | Part Three: License Plate Ransom

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Fake Passengers: Uganda’s Omnipresent Corruption Infects Even Simple Taxi Rides

Around the world, 14-seat commuter vans are a daily routine for millions of people. But in Uganda, corruption has infected even this seemingly simple act: the rise of fake passengers.

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Sulaiman Kintu, a commuter-taxi driver, waits outside Kampala’s crowded bus station. His taxi, with its maroon seats dulled by the grime of several years of use, is slow to fill today.

It’s 1:30 p.m., and it’s hot.

As all drivers do, he has to wait until his 14-passenger van is full before he can set off.

So far, passengers are just trickling in.

Two young men in their early twenties are sitting in the second row behind the driver’s seat in silence.

Two other men are sitting in the last row of the taxi.

After 10 minutes, two new passengers – a man and his daughter – get in and sit in the middle row.

Eight minutes pass without any new passengers getting into the taxi.

Kintu yells out the locations where his taxi will stop, hoping to attract more passengers.

One new passenger gets in. That man brings the total number of passengers to seven.

But as three students in uniform get in, the two young men in the second row get out.

The passenger count is now eight.

Fake passengers, such as the two in the second row, are a necessary tool to lure passengers into commuter taxis, says Kintu.

“It’s like a seed that brings others to the taxi,” he says, adding that passengers are less likely to sit in an empty taxi, because they think it will take too long to fill up.

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Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Taxi drivers pay fake passengers to make their cars looks full because all 14-seats need to be occupied before they can depart.

Kintu paid the two young men in the second row 500 shillings (14 cents) each for their time, to dupe other passengers into believing the taxi was not empty.

Once a commuter taxi has eight real passengers, fake passengers get out, because the van looks full enough to attract six more customers.

“A lucky person will sit in your taxi for a few minutes, and many more people will come in,” Kintu says. But often, that isn’t the case.

Corruption is a way of life in Kampala, Uganda’s crowded capital. Ranked 151st out of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruptions Perception Index, Uganda offers encounters with corruption in even the most trivial daily situation, such as the commute to work.

For drivers of commuter taxis, using fake passengers is necessary to make sure they travel with full passenger loads, in order to maximize profits. But for customers, it’s an annoying ploy that can cause long delays.

Often, when real passengers get sick of waiting, they leave the commuter taxi in favor of taking a boda boda, a motorcycle taxi, which is usually at least twice as fast, twice as expensive and many times more dangerous.

On average, it takes 20 to 40 minutes to fill a 14-seat commuter taxi, says Samson Kapuru, a taxi conductor, who collects money from the passengers. Most people prefer to enter a taxi that is at least half full. At off-peak hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., fake passengers are more common than during rush hour.

Ranked 151st out of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruptions Perception Index, Uganda offers encounters with corruption in even the most trivial daily situation, such as the commute to work.

Taxi drivers can make as much as 250,000 shillings ($68) per day, Kapuru says. Of that, they pay about 20,000 shillings ($5.40) to fake passengers.

The network of fake passengers is coordinated among many drivers, says Kapuru, who works at the Kamwokya taxi stand in a Kampala suburb.

“It helps us have our taxis full quickly, and we move,” he says. “When my friend’s taxi fills and moves, I know mine is next.”

Timothy Sibyangu, a regular fake passenger at the Kamwokya stage, says he thinks of his role as helping taxi drivers, not hurting passengers.

“It’s not in bad faith,” he says. “This is business – we have to strategize on how to move our business fast. So, when enough passengers come, I leave.”

Anita Kajumba, a 23-year-old retail trader, says that fake passengers disrespect customers’ time.

“Sometimes you have planned to get to your destination in 30 minutes and realize later that actually you were the only genuine passenger in the taxi. So you arrive late,” she says.

Eria Musa agrees that fake passengers are frustrating.

“They waste our time,” he says. “Whenever we think a taxi is almost full, they start getting out. It feels bad. We end up staying in, while they get out one by one.”

Fed up with fake passengers, Musa says he’d rather pay the money and take the risk on a boda boda.

“I prefer to get onto a boda boda, because I want to reach my destination fast,” he says.

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.

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Kampala’s Motorcycle Taxis Offer the Speediest, Riskiest Commuting Option

Kampala’s notorious traffic jams and other transportation headaches usually mean that the fastest travel option is a motorcycle taxi, known here as a boda boda. But as the cause of thousands of road fatalities annually, a boda boda also means a safety risk.

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Margret Makobe has survived three boda boda accidents.

Motorcycle taxis, called boda boda here, are among the most popular and the most dangerous types of transportation in Uganda’s bustling capital.

Makobe says she hasn’t ridden a boda boda since 2014, when her third accident left a bone in her arm permanently dislocated.

She blames the unprofessional drivers, who lack training, in combination with low-quality roads and chaotic city planning, for the ever-increasing number of boda boda accidents and deaths in the country.

“I used to [travel] on boda bodas, because they were swift and would reach my destination in the shortest time possible,” she says. “And they can always beat a [traffic] jam faster than any car.”

Passengers opt for boda bodas to combat Kampala’s wicked traffic jams, known to take hours to get though during peak times, and to avoid the daily frustrations of taking other forms of public transport, which include long traffic delays and other annoyances, such as the use of fake taxi passengers.

Charles Ssebambulidde, spokesperson for the Uganda Police Force’s Directorate of Traffic and Road Safety, says that untrained drivers, known here as riders, are the major cause of boda boda deaths here.

“Many [drivers] didn’t get proper training in driving schools, where they could learn and interpret road signs,” he says.

But training isn’t required to get a permit to drive a boda boda. Drivers can be tested by the Inspectorate of Vehicles, a department under the Directorate of Traffic and Road Safety, before they are granted a driving permit, but Ssebambulidde says many boda boda drivers don’t have permits at all. The test only requires a certified letter that the driver has had an eye exam.

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Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Kampala, Uganda's capital city, is notorious for traffic jams that take hours.

Solomon Sendegeya, assistant director at Dembe Driving School in Kampala, says that training drivers of all kinds can improve the safety record on the roads.

“It’s important that boda boda [drivers] are professionally trained to ride on the not-so-good road network that we have,” he says. “But most of them prefer to be trained by friends and relatives, so they miss out on the knowledge we provide.”

While the school trains other types of drivers, on average they train just two or three boda boda drivers each year, a number he considers too small to bring about any change.

There are more than 54,000 registered boda boda drivers in Kampala, but authorities estimate there are more than 200,000 active boda boda drivers in the city, says Peter Kaujju, spokesperson for the Kampala City Council Authority.

Innocent Tumwine, a boda boda driver who operates around the Kira Road Police Station in Bukoto, a township in Kampala, says that attending driving school doesn’t mean drivers will not have accidents.

“It’s personal discipline to know when to make a right or wrong turn,” he says. “I was personally trained by a relative to ride a boda boda, tested and approved by the inspector of vehicles, and then processed my driving permit – and I have never been involved in a severe accident.”

According to the records of the Uganda traffic police, at least 4,941 people lost their lives in boda boda accidents across Uganda in 2015-16, with the Kampala region recording the highest number of reported accidents. Of the fatalities, 1,522 were boda boda drivers, 723 were passengers and 2,696 were pedestrians.

“Many of these boda boda [drivers] are impatient, reckless,” says Ssebambulidde. “They don’t respect other road users. And they end up being knocked dead by cars as they make wrong turns. They also end up hitting pedestrians, because they have forced their way on to the pedestrians’ lane.”

There are more than 54,000 registered boda boda drivers in Kampala, but authorities estimate there are more than 200,000 active boda boda drivers in the city, says Peter Kaujju, spokesperson for the Kampala City Council Authority.

Ssebambulidde warns that these numbers are just those reported to police. He says that there are likely many more accidents that don’t get reported.

Enock Kusasira, spokesperson for the Mulago National Referral Hospital, says that boda boda accidents are a major source of daily hospital visits.

“We receive about 30 boda boda accident victims daily, with boda boda accidents accounting for about 80 percent of accidents,” he says.

Steven Kasiima, assistant inspector general of police and head of the Directorate of Traffic and Road Safety, says that most roads in Uganda are constructed for car users, adding that 74 percent of the boda boda accident victims were pedestrians.

“They have no lanes for pedestrians and other road users, regarding most roads in the country. So these boda boda guys will ride anyway with disregard to other road users, and knock down pedestrians because of their recklessness,’ he says.

Jacqueline Lwanga, who prefers using boda bodas when she is traveling, says poor road planning in the country is responsible for the accidents and not a lack of professional training by boda boda drivers.

“The roads in Kampala are so narrow for the increasing number of cars and boda boda, yet they have to beat the [traffic] jam to reach their client’s destination as fast as they can. Therefore, they maneuver in all kind of ways, including using the pedestrians’ lane,” she says.

Susan Kataike, senior public-relations officer for the Ministry of Works and Transport, says she disagrees.

“Boda boda-caused accidents go beyond poor road planning,” she says. “Drivers are reckless and disrespectful of other road users.”

Kataike adds that Kampala streets were planned during colonial days, when the city was sparsely populated and the roads were narrow.

“The colonial master didn’t envision the current influx of boda bodas,” she says.

But for former boda boda passengers such as Makobe, there must be a better way to travel through the city.

Some interviews were translated from Luganda.

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A New Target for Uganda’s Thieves: Stealing License Plates for Ransom

Thieves are increasingly stealing license plates from cars and demanding ransom for the plates’ return. With ineffective police and a long wait for replacement plates, car owners are facing a dilemma: Pay the thieves or deal with the police and bureaucrats?

KAMPALA, UGANDA — On a recent morning, Bob Kisiki woke up to find the license plate of his car missing.

He found on the windshield a note instructing him to call the number on the note if he wanted his license plate back.

Instead of contacting the police, Kisiki called the number and negotiated a ransom for the return of the license plate.

The person on the other end of the line started the negotiations at 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($53.88). Kisiki says he negotiated the price down to 50,000 shillings ($13.47).

Within three weeks, he had his license plate back — for a small fraction of the costs and in a small fraction of the time he would have had to endure if he had called the police and pursued a replacement through the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Stealing license plates for ransom is a crime on the rise in Uganda. While negotiating directly with thieves is discouraged by police, locals say they prefer it to the long and expensive formal process to replace a stolen license plate.

“I have never reported a case to police where they did anything about it,” Kisiki says. “That is why I dealt with the thieves to get my number plate back.”

Luke Owoyesigyire, spokesman for Kampala Metropolitan Police, says reports of license-plate theft began in 2016. Today, reports of the crime are increasing, with as many as three cases reported every day and likely many more that go unreported, he says.

License-plate thieves tend to focus on residential areas where cars are parked on the street overnight, he says.

I have never reported a case to police where they did anything about it,. That is why I dealt with the thieves to get my number plate back.

But driving without a license plate is illegal here, putting pressure on drivers to get their plates back quickly. Driving without a plate is punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of 200,000 shillings ($53.88). Stealing a license plate is punishable by up to 10 years in jail, but Owoyesigyire says that’s the punishment for general theft. Thieves often aren’t caught taking license plates.

Vincent Munyagwa, a resident of the Kawempe division of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, says he noticed both number plates missing from his car one Monday morning in March as he prepared to drive to work. His car was within a fence in his yard.

“My home is fenced, but the thieves managed to enter and take my car plates,” he says.

As Kisiki did, Munyagwa also found a note on the front window with a mobile number to call. Munyagwa says he decided to contact the thieves, too, because he assumed that calling the police wasn’t likely lead to the return of his plates, and buying replacement plates would cost as much as 350,000 shillings ($94.29) and would take months for the revenue authority to replace them.

“It took just four days to get my plates back from the thieves, at a cost of 100,000 [shillings ($26.94)],” he says. “If I had chosen to deal with the police, it would have taken me months to get a new number plate and would have cost me more money than dealing with the criminals.”

Owoyesigyire, of the police department, warns against dealing directly with the thieves.

“These are criminals,” he says. “When victims deal with the criminals, [they] are giving them a go-ahead to continue with the crime.”

Owoyesigyire says that paying ransom for the return of license plates can also be considered obstruction of justice, but no charges have been filed against those who have paid ransoms.

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Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

When Moses Karyango’s front license plate was stolen more than three months ago, he chose to call the police rather than respond to the ransom note. He made a replacement plate with cardboard and a marker, because driving without one is punishable by up to two years in prison.

When Moses Karyango’s front license plate was stolen, he says he chose to report the crime rather than call the number on the note left behind.

“Dealing with the criminals would be telling them, ‘Hey, come and I’ll pay you for a job well-done,’” he says.

Karyango says he reported his case to police three months ago, but so far nothing has been done. He is driving his car with a license plate that he made with cardboard and a marker.

“I didn’t buy my car to [have it] sit at home for months,” he says, adding that at least he still has the genuine plate on the back of his car.

Owoyesigyire acknowledges that the police response to this type of crime is often slow, but he says that when the crime is reported, the police issue a document that gives the driver permission to drive without a plate while the investigation is ongoing.

Kisiki says he’s decided to sell his car.

Some interviews were translated from Luganda.