On an ordinary day last month, Dawit Eshetu, 26, parked his Toyota Hiace minibus half a kilometres from Qechene Medhanialem Church along Dej. Haileselassie Avenue. A taxi driver, he had come home from a long day at work, in a rush to catch some sleep. Yet, he did not forget to pay the regular 20 Br fee to the guys watching the parking area, even finding the time to make some small talk with them.

Dawit was in shock when he woke up the next morning. His car was not where he had left it. Clueless, he thought the watchmen had somehow moved it. That was not to be.

Minutes into his day, he found out his car, worth close to 200,000 Br and a source of his livelihood, had been stolen. For the following two weeks, he could barely sleep. He had reported the theft to the Addis Abeba Police Commission.

"I was frightened," he said. "I kept running the worst-case scenarios through my head."

One of these was probably being held responsible for the theft, as Dawit rented the vehicle he uses as a taxi. It was found later in Bishoftu (Debrezeit) town, 45Km away from where he had parked it. When the police finally tracked it down, it had all its four wheels and dashboard missing.

There were 211 cars stolen in 2020, showing a 17pc drop from the previous year, according to data from the Police Commission.

Addis Abeba has its residents and officials priding themselves for its safety. However, crime is on the rise. Petty theft, including mugging and pickpocketing, has increased noticeably. According to reports from the city's Police Commission, the culprits often work in groups and rely on distraction techniques, while the individuals involved are usually young men and teenage boys.

The theft of vehicle parts is among the most common reports the Organised Crime Investigation Division of the Police Commission receives from 60 police stations across the city. A lack of secure parking spaces and organised parking service providers are major reasons for the rise in car theft, according to its Commander, Alemayehu Ayalqe.

Auto stores like the ones pictured above have recently taken to offering security devices as car thefts in the capital rise.

Ride-hailing services have been the main victims of armed and unarmed robbery. But curbing the crimes is made difficult by a lack of follow-through from victims, says the Commander.

"Victims don't always come to the police," said Alemayhu.

Addis Ketema, Bole and Yeka are the most exposed to car thefts among the 11 districts in the capital, with almost a quarter of a million automobiles. The destination for most stolen cars is neighbouring towns, particularly Bishoftu, Legetafo and Sululta. In most cases, when the police discover the whereabouts of the vehicles, they are found with missing parts.

Last year, of the stolen cars that were recovered, 102 were found with missing parts. In the worst cases, robbers allegedly buy counterfeit plates or repaint the vehicles, oftentimes attempting to smuggle them across the border. Old cars, particularly those manufactured in the 1980s and 90s, are frequent targets as they lack electronic immobilisers that reduce the risk of vehicles being stolen. Particularly, Toyota Corolla and DX models, manufactured between 1987 and 1991 and a common sight in the capital before the explosion of Vitz models, are easy prey for thieves.

The Toyota Hiace models such as the one Dawit drives are among the prefered types.

Car theft is rising against a backdrop where buying a car remains a daunting task for many Ethiopians. Old vehicles models such as the 1987 Toyota Corolla are sold for as much as 400,000 Br, twice the market price two years ago. The same is true for relatively newer models, like the Vitz and Yaris. The cost of either, if they are in good condition, is almost nearing one million Birr, showing almost a 50pc upsurge during the same period.

Rising theft incidents and the skyrocketing cost of vehicles have made car-owners vigilant about the safety of their property. It has led to the emergence of a market catering to the needs of those looking to keep their property safe.

One of those involved in the trade is Mikiyas Yitagesu, running a car decor store around the Sebara Babur neighbourhood. He offers anti-theft devices such as GPS trackers, pedals and engine lockers. He does not see customers come in to buy them very often, but when they do, it is more often people who own newer models.

"I get people looking for pedal lockers for old models," Mikiyas told Fortune. "But, people looking for engine locker plugs for new models come in a lot more."

An engine locker plug prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver does not use the master key. Mikiyas sells the device for 600 Br, including fees for the electrician.

Despite the close call, Dawit has his excuse for not investing in one of these devices.

"I don't have the money to install this," he says. "That's the owner's responsibility."

Yet owners of vehicles are becoming more aware of the availability of car security systems.

Jemal Bereka, a father of two, was in the market for an anti-theft alarm system around Sebara Babur along Arbegnoch Street. He trades electric appliances, starting as an employee and opening his own store in Piassa. The 32-year old businessman was shopping for an alarm system after the side mirrors and stereo system of his Toyota Yaris had been stolen in the Shegolle area last month.

"It's tedious to go to the police during my working hours knowing that they won't give me a solution," Jemal told Fortune.

He was, however, not open to the idea of buying an engine locker, for a limited budget. The lockers used to be imported with the alarm system in a pack but are not usually installed by technicians. The price for an anti-theft alarm system ranges between 2,500 Br to 6,000 Br based on the device's sophistication. Some feature infrared sensors that signal the key-holder whenever someone is around.

The devices are imported mainly from China or Dubai and go for as much as 700 Br at a store, but there is little demand for the item, according to Samuel Wubishet, co-owner of Miki Car Decor.

The surge in vehicle robberies has also helped the global vehicle security market to thrive. The leading competitors in the global vehicle security market are the Japan-based Alps Electric, Continental, based in Germany, and Delphi Automotive from the UK. With over a quarter of a trillion vehicles, China is the home of the world's largest vehicle security market. The rising appetite of vehicle owners to put safety and security measures has driven demand for vehicle security components and solutions.

It is no different in Ethiopia.

Robel Zewdie, an automotive electrician, has observed that taxi-hailing service providers have shown a growing interest in GPS trackers and engine lockers lately. However, he believes the market is not as robust as it should be. Older car models are more victimised than new cars, as they can be stolen by contacting motor starter wires.

"Some technicians are collaborators, they might show [the thieves] techniques on how to uninstall anti-theft devices," he said. "I suggest using a steering wheel lock."

With advanced vehicle anti-theft systems being a victim of relay theft tactics, the market is still trying to respond to buyers' needs, coming up with upgraded security solutions, including face detection technology to replace car keys. It is a far fetched option for car owners in Addis Abeba, at least for now. Some are shifting to more conventional security approaches, using a steering wheel lock, costing less than 1,500 Br.

"It's safe and inexpensive," said Abera Moti, a driver of a minibus, who recently bought the device.

Adding to the safety measures, the justice system tries to respond to law enforcement efforts keeping criminals in check.

A 21-year old convict, who was arrested earlier last month for stealing a Toyota Hiace model worth 300,000 Br from around the Jemo area, Nefas Silk Lafto District, was sentenced to six years in prison by judges at the Federal First Instance Court, Arada Bench.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 18,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1116]

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