Dressed in a chequered shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Leopold Ben Odoi is the smartest amongst his colleagues at Tororo market.
At first sight, one may think Odoi is doing well financially because of his appearance. Yet his smartness masks the fact that he is a frustrated policeman hitherto attached to Butaleja central police station in Butaleja district. For now, Odoi is a cop by name only; his bank account does not reflect his occupation. The 33-year-old has to this day endured 48 months without salary for his ongoing service to community and country.
That situation has pushed Police Constable No. 35296 into selling silver fish (mukene) to earn a living. A 5kg tin of mukene goes for Shs 6,000. A small Tumpeco mug goes for Shs 600.
Odoi's predicament started in 2010, when his United Kingdom-based step-brother Solomon Osinde, for whom he ran a poultry project, dragged him to police. Osinde alleged that Odoi had swindled Shs 3.5m from the project. He was later charged, under case No 85/2010 at the Tororo chief magistrate's court.
However, on September 2, 2011, magistrate Sayekwo Godfrey Kintu dismissed the case on grounds that the prosecution had failed to avail witnesses and other material evidence. The police human resource department responsible for revoking Odoi's suspension and reinstating his salary payment sent the court ruling to the police legal department so they could review it.
But the police legal department did not accept the ruling. Instead, it directed the Malaba region command unit to constitute an internal disciplinary committee and try Odoi on charges of discreditable/irregular conduct. The disciplinary committee court, chaired by Bosco Mugido, sat on August 28, 2012 at Tororo's Central police station.
However, only one of the three witnesses lined to testify against Odoi turned up. As a result, the hearing was adjourned to August 31 to allow the state to produce the other witnesses. After the witnesses, including Osinde the complainant, failed to turn up more than twice, the disciplinary court also dismissed the case and set Odoi free.
Once again, the command unit sent the disciplinary committee court ruling to the police legal department. Before Odoi could savour his second victory, the police legal department wrote back for the second time, asking the command unit to re-try Odoi on charges of discreditable/irregular conduct.
A second committee was constituted, chaired by Sande Milton, and its hearing commenced on October 9, 2013. Although other witnesses appeared this time round, the complainant, the principal witness in the case, was nowhere to be seen. The court ruled that there was no merit in the state's case and, accordingly, acquitted Odoi. The ruling was sent to the police legal team pending the reinstatement of Odoi.
However, since October 2013 the legal department has remained silent on Odoi's case. The situation continues to puzzle not only Odoi, but also senior police officers in charge of Malaba region. Michael Odongo, the Malaba region police spokesperson, says they played their part as directed by the police legal department and the matter is currently out of their hands.
"We are also waiting for the legal department in Kampala to approve the last court ruling and write directing the human resource [department] to reinstate Odoi," says Odongo.
Cry for justice:
Odoi says since he started battling the case in 2010, he has never received his salary yet no court has found him guilty of any crime. Spokesperson Odongo says Odoi does not have any other disciplinary issue on his file besides the case lodged by Osinde, for which he was cleared.
Odoi says the act of not paying him his salary is unconstitutional since police standing orders state that any officer who is interdicted or suspended is entitled to receive half-pay. Butaleja District Police Commander (DPC) Alex Wabwire confirms that Odoi is not earning a salary, but says they will continue to deploy the hapless officer since he is still a member of the police force.
"Odoi was neither interdicted nor suspended; so, he has to continue serving the force," says Wabwire.
"I would really love to help Odoi but the matter is beyond me and I do not know what is happening because he was acquitted of all charges."
When Odoi tried to follow up the matter at the police headquarters, he says, he was told to produce the complainant who filed the case against him before he is reinstated and his salary arrears paid. A frustrated Odoi wonders why he is being tasked to produce the complainant yet he is the accused.
What haunts Odoi more now is not even the court battle, but why he has gone unpaid for four years without any formal communication from police authorities.
"I was not convicted, dismissed nor declared a deserter yet for 48 months my salary has gone missing," he laments.
Odoi says he finds it inexplicable that his name still appears in the payment system yet his bank account has not been credited for the last 48 months. This, he says, raises suspicion that someone within the force could be "earning" his money.
The mukene business:
Odoi is a father to five school-going children. With no salary, he says he has been forced to return his children to UPE schools in his village. Frustrated by his circumstances, Odoi got a loan to start the mukene business to enable him provide for his family.
"I report to the station for duty in the morning but in the evening I come and vend my mukene in the market so that I can be able to send some soap and sugar to my family in the village," he says.
With life becoming ever more difficult due to non-payment of his salary, Odoi says he sometimes regrets why he joined a force that has now turned him into a prisoner with no crime committed. Butaleja DPC Wabwire says he normally gives Odoi long leave periods to allow him do his private business and earn a living from it.
Jessica Nyawere, also a mukene vendor in Tororo market, is shocked to learn that her closest neighbour is a cop. Nyawere says Odoi is such a humble and composed trader that she could not suspect he is a cop. Another trader, Josephine Akumu, says Odoi sometimes breaks down and looks a troubled man. He, however, deflects any inquiries about his well-being, insisting that he is "fine".
Odoi not alone:
"Even through I do not earn salary, I still report for duty because I fear they can declare me a deserter and I will be charged and imprisoned," Odoi says.
"It is so unfortunate that the government used a lot of money in training me and here I am selling mukene instead of keeping law and order. Something is wrong somewhere with the police force."
A police officer at Tororo Central police station who preferred anonymity for fear of victimisation, tells The Observer that Odoi is not the only one facing such frustration. The officer claims there are many police officers who have been framed and their salaries are now going to highly-placed officers.
"Odoi is just one of the victims of a rotten police system," says the officer. "Many of us have suffered in silence for fear of being dropped."