“Can they do that?”
The young lawyer seated at the other end of the table stays quiet as if all the answers are in that silence. The downcast expression on his face definitely answers the question. Yes, they can. Yes, they will.
He knew the answer before he asked anyway. He might not know much of the law, but he knows a considerable amount of money related laws. The money and the numbers, those are his specialties. Were; those were his specialties. Somehow, he’s lost his touch; that charm; that talent. Or was it mere luck that just ran out? He once spoke in figures, ate tax, lived in his office; the very same office the government is about to seal up. He can’t even remember how it all fell apart. Somewhere along the line, somewhere down the line, everything came crashing down. He is careful. He has no dirt on his hands. There hasn’t been a more honest tax accountant
counting from the time of Caesar. And yet, he was making it big, right from the start. But what went wrong? He can’t place it. He’s been trying to but he just can’t.
“My daughter hates me,” he says suddenly, as if it has just dawned on him. “You know, her original name is Mayowa, but because I gave it to her, she dropped it and picked up the one given to her by her mother; Kasiobi. She introduces herself as Kassie.”
The young lawyer narrows his eyes. “Maybe she just wants a cute nickname and it has nothing to do with you.”
“Mayor is a cute nickname, don’t you think?”
The young lawyer suppresses a smile. “Kassie is cuter.” “She hates me. She’s said so before.”
“I ignored my daughter and my wife. I ignored everything. Accounting was all that mattered to me,” he says solemnly. “I buried myself in tax, paperwork and account keeping while my family suffered. This is what I get at the end of it?”
Or does he deserve it?
More silence from the other end.
“I’m fifty-two. I should be thinking of retirement, not some freaking land use charge and definitely not bankruptcy! If they seal up that place, my employees will finally give up and leave.
Then more suits for payment. I’m not even done with the EFCC or the FIRS. What do we do now?”
At the other end of the table, his attorney sighs as his mind journeys to his first meeting with this man. He seemed so proud and arrogant as he interviewed his prospective lawyer in his own law office. Osita Oziri, LL.B; BL., buried his face in his palms, trying to comprehend the situation.
“You didn’t even graduate with a second class?” the man asked.
Osita sighed in exasperation and made it clear to the older man that he had briefs to work on, that legal drafting is not the easiest task, and by the way, he graduated from the best law faculty in the country so he doesn’t need a first class. Apparently, his straight-forwardness and impatience earned him a new client, along with a workload of problems.
Take away the one year of compulsory youth service and he is one year out of Law School. Not that he expected to be employed by Matrix or Uduma and Osagie -even though he grew up wishing to work with Gani- but he hoped for a nice firm that didn’t have only one lawyer with no paralegal and no secretary. And he definitely didn’t hope to have a bankrupt tax accountant in trouble with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission as well as the Federal Inland Revenue Service as his client in his first year. Sure, it will do good for his career if he actually succeeds in this one, but the odds are terrible. He only took the case because his Godfather, on his deathbed, begged him to help a friend who cannot afford an SAN and whose ego is bigger than pro bono. Plus, he realized that Mr. Lekan Kolade is in so many ways like his own father who died of a heart attack at the same fifty-two after he lost his business and his house.
As if on a mission from the heavens, Osita’s Samsung ringtone drags him back to the present. “Hullo, Efosa,” he answers. “Speak fast. I’m with a client.”
“So I found some dirt like you asked.”
“I’m listening.” He hands an apologetic look to his client.
Apparently, Dolphin Finances has some skeletons in cupboards that mustn’t ever be opened,” Efosa pours out in a sleek tone. “They have a long history of tax evasion but they’ve never been caught. Their lawyers are darn too good. They also have a history of evading tax and helping their clients evade tax. Sadly for them, I was able to get all the proof we need. Do I head over to your office or to Dolphin?”
The smile that suddenly forms on his lawyer’s face gives his heart one more reason to beat. With no guarantee that it has anything to do with the case, Mr. Kolade finds himself praying to the God of grey hairs that they’ve had a break; that he can sleep well again.
“Head over to Dolphin. I’ll meet you there. Make copies of the documents. Do not take any original with you. If possible, drop by at your bank.”
The old tax accountant smiles for the first time in months. ‘Dolphin’ and his lawyer’s smile means good news. Maybe he can sleep well again. “Good news?” he asks when his lawyer has put down the phone.
“Beautiful news. Let’s go get the EFCC out of our hairs.”
– * – * – * –
The air is stiff and the split air conditioners aren’t doing much to help. Files and documents are scattered across the table. Lawyers and clients circle the table as they take in the depth of the circumstance and weigh the pros against the cons.
“C’mon, you both know the best call,” Efosa volunteers finally. “All we need is for you to let us take your confession. Our client had no knowledge of your involvement in illegal activities. He simply loaned some money to you as a colleague without knowing you would use it to finance money laundering. He was not a party to any illegal business. That’s the truth. You go down alone, and we won’t drag your entire business, along with your lawyers and their firm, into the mud. It’ll be pretty messy.”
“Just the confession and nothing else?”
Osita can tell that the lawyer is terrified but won’t show it. First rule of layering, never show your fear.
Efosa scoffs. “Of course, you have to push for the EFCC to drop all charges against our client.”
The Dolphin lawyer snorts. “You’re bluffing. Your client already has a case with the FIRS. I’m sure if we look into…”
“You won’t find anything,” Osita finally cuts in, curtly but timely. “Our case with the FIRS is based on simple non-payment and we could just go find the money and pay what they’re asking
for even though we think they over estimated what our client owes. Your client, his firm, and your firm as well are guilty of some serious tax crimes and it’s all in here. You think we’re bluffing? Do you really want to take that chance?”
Beside each lawyer, both tax accountants exchange hot glares of contempt, both of them avoiding direct input.
If one of them harbours hatred towards the other, it isn’t the bankrupt man. Of course, he isn’t hiding his contempt, but his contempt is not directed at the man himself. He is too honest a person, or at least he tries to be, to hate another human being. He simply does not have it in him. What he does have contempt for is the man’s character; how he turned around and stabbed his one loyal friend in the back. He should have known though, that not all men are honest; not all men give a darn. He’s stayed quiet all through, but when you have the upper hand, well…
“I don’t want to do this, Anthony,” Lekan Kolade chips in. “But you can’t drag me into something I wasn’t a part of. It’s bad enough that you still owe me what I loaned you.”
“I owe you nothing!” comes the sharp-witted reply. “You signed an agreement.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Osita intervenes. “So what do you say? Do we drop by the FIRS or are we getting that confession? You really have nothing to lose by taking the second option.”
Then hushed conversations between lawyer and client.
Client rubs both eyes.
Efosa clears her throat. “By the way, you know that associate in your firm who broke client privilege, I’ve heard a little about her. I don’t have proof, but if I walk out of this building without that confession, I will get proof and I will bury her.”
A cough from the other side of the table. A client-to-lawyer nod.
Then some throat clearing from the lawyer. “You’ll destroy all the evidence.” “Of course. Right in your presence, but only after our client has been cleared.” “And you have your recording equipment ready?”
“Always,” Efosa replies.
“Fine then, you’ll get the confession.”
– * – * – * –
The best way to relieve oneself of stress is to walk into a continental diner and have a non-low budget dinner with a sane person and a glass of wine. That is exactly what Osita Oziri does after scaring off big-man Anthony and his lawyer. On the table with him is Efosa, still in her work dress but with her make up retouched. They place their orders; catfish pepper soup for the man, African breadfruit porridge for the lady, round it up with a bottle of Rubis and try not to care about compatibility.
“Let’s do this partnership thingy, Efosa. How much longer do I have to beg?” After growing up with pepper-loving natives, talking with hot pepper in one’s mouth only burns a little. “What do they say about two heads?” All year long, he’s begged. All year long, she’s refused. They make a good team and they both know it. But something keeps holding her back.
“C’mon, you know Ivie wouldn’t approve. She’s jealous enough already. If she even hears that this dinner happened… And considering you haven’t married her yet…”
“Please, don’t join the insane people.”
She laughs, and the ease with which she does captures him again, like it’s done time without number. She holds her palm up to cover her mouth. “I know I laugh too loud.”
He replies with a smile, “It’s not too loud. It’s beautiful.”
Efosa raises one eyebrow and accompanies it with a scoff. “Don’t be such a flirt! You’re engaged to be married to Ivie and your mother loves her.”
“That’s because they’re very much alike,” he mutters. “They’ve both been stressing me out with wedding talks. Mum has passed on the gist to friends. Now everyone’s asking for the wedding date and for the dress code. When they make noise in her ears, she transfers the noise to my ears. Efosa keeps reminding me that weddings come after engagement, as if I don’t know that. My sister is dreaming of her bridesmaid dress already.”
Another loud laughter almost erupts from within her, but Efosa stops herself. “What did you expect?” she asked wide-eyed. “You’re the one who proposed while still broke and unsettled.”
“Maybe it’s not the money that’s the problem. Maybe I just don’t want to marry her,” Osita blurts out.
Efosa stares at him in shock, not because she did not see this coming, but because she did, and she’s been dreading it. “Don’t say that,” she cautions in her mildest voice. “Don’t.”
She met Osita on her way to Criminal Procedure class during their first month in Law School and in the most cliché of ways. They bumped into each other and her books landed on the ground. He didn’t help her pick them though, as he seemed to be in too much of a hurry. Two days later, they bumped into each other again and he apologised for the other time. The story went on. However, he never made the move, even at the times she was sure he would. He was committed to another girl; he’d been committed to another girl since his university days. Ivie was that girl. If he suddenly doesn’t want to be with Ivie anymore, she has to be the reason. She’s so darn sure of it!
“It’s the truth.”
Eager to change the direction of the conversation, Efosa forces a spoon of the porridge into her mouth to give her time to think. After struggling with the food in her mouth and the thousand thoughts swimming within her head, she succeeds in switching topics. “What are you going to do about your client’s land use charge?”
He shrugs carefree-ly. Then two spoons, before he replies. “He’ll have to find a way to pay it before they seal it up. Afterwards, he’ll have to settle his employees. I really can’t help him there. There’s no money in the economy.”
“The man can’t afford tax,” she reminds him cautiously, just in case he’s forgotten that vital point.
“On the brighter side, he owes only one year’s worth of salary.” “He doesn’t have the money.”
He shrugs again.
“He’s wasting resources on that FIRS case. They’ve been here before. Their case with Gazetta Communications; remember it? He’s going to lose. You’re going to lose.”
Another shrug. “I’m just trying to buy time. I’m hoping he can come up with the money before the court rules. That’s all I can think of.”
“Does he know that’s what you’re doing?” “He doesn’t.”
“That document you didn’t sign properly, the point was to delay the case too?”
A nod this time. “Mr. K doesn’t seem worried about elongating his time in court anyway. He actually wants to sue Anthony for the money he owes him. He just doesn’t want to understand that if he’s claiming it wasn’t an illegal contract in anyway, then he’s got to be bound by his promise. He’s so convinced he can recover somehow.” He’s begun to sound drowsy, as if he’s being forced to keep speaking.
“You’re going to lose to the FIRS,” Efosa repeats. Osita nods again. “I know.”
– * – * – * –
The weeks that follow are hectic, with Mr. Kolade constantly trying to wrap his head around his situation. His employees have begun to quit, one after the other, and with each letter of resignation comes a demand for payment and a threat of a brand new and flawless lawsuit. The land use charge he failed to pay, even when his business hadn’t suffered too much yet, has finally caught up with him and his office has been sealed. The judgment on the FIRS case is coming in in less than five minutes. The EFCC refused to drop the charges against him. He’s in some serious debt with his lawyer. And worst of all, his daughter still hates him.
He stands when the court clerk calls for the court to stand and sits when he sees his lawyer sit. And then he listens to the judge mention cases after cases, notions after notions, all foreign to him except the numbers and the words that determine his fate. Assuming but not concluding that the FIRS indeed overestimated his taxes, from his PAYE to his Education Tax to his Total Tax Liabilities and what not, then there was a solution. Was. The FIRS Act provides for any person who is aggrieved with an assessment done against him by the FIRS to appeal to the Tax Appeal Tribunal before the expiration of thirty days, unless sufficient reason is shown for the delay. A section is mentioned. Another case follows. As no such appeal was made to the Tax Appeal Tribunal before the thirty-day period expired, and no sufficient reason was presented, the decision of the FIRS must be deemed to be final. Indeed, both statute and precedent support this ruling. The court finds for the plaintiff.
Mr. Kolade’s face is squeezed while his lawyer has the look of one who just got the bad luck he’s been expecting all year.
“So do we appeal?” He turns to his lawyer.
“No, we don’t,” comes the honest reply. “The judge basically followed precedent and quite frankly, there is no distinguishing this case from the one that led to his ratio. Even if there was, statute is clear on the matter. We’ll lose at the Court of Appeal. We’ll lose at the Supreme Court. It’s a waste of resources we don’t have.”
“So what now?” the tax accountant that should have known better than to owe both tax and land use charge- though one has to blame bankruptcy for that- asked solemnly and with a tone that screams resignation.
Osita Oziri, LL.B, BL., shrugs in his usual uncaring manner. “You pay Caesar his dues.”
– * – * – * –
As they step out of the courtroom, they walk straight into Efosa, her face beaming with smiles and her eyes twinkling. While his client prays to the God of grey hairs, Osita stops in his tracks and catches his breath. He sees it now. It’s been there all these years, but he sees it now, clearer than ever.
“The EFCC dropped all charges,” she announces. “You can stop having those nightmares about spending fifteen years behind bars. You’re going to remain a free man. We could just slap Mr. Anthony with a lawsuit for defamation and channel the damages into all these debts or maybe even find a way around that agreement. We’ve got this!”
Nothing ever sounded as good as the ‘we’ does. Her energy, her commitment, her beauty; nothing ever felt better. Osita feels the urge to smile and he does. While his client thanks the God of grey hairs again and fills his head with thoughts of getting his daughter’s love, Osita Oziri LL.B, BL., listens to the sound of Efosa’s excitement. And when she laughs, he realizes that he’s going to make her his partner; his partner in all ramifications.
– * – * – * –
Kassie walks into the room she hates most in the entire house; her father’s room. She’d just been listening to her mum go on and on about how her father really wants to make amends.
“Listen to him and be a good daughter,” she said, “Just try to understand where he’s coming from.”
Like heck she will!
The sound of the door pulls his attention away from his files. He’s been trying day and night, since the court’s ruling, to get something right for once in almost three years. Before his sudden bankruptcy, he wouldn’t even have looked away from these files. With so many clients queuing up for their taxes to be handled by this tax lord, he couldn’t afford to let the flow get broken; not even for a thousand bucks. He was earning way more than that. Today, however, he has just one big-fish of a client who’s left him before and who is going to leave him again if he blows it again, but he actually looks up for a change. No more slaving for people who won’t be there when things go bad. No more pushing family, the people that actually stay with you when you’re on your death bed- or at the point of bankruptcy as the case may be-, to the back of the stage. It’s time to pay attention to Mayor, or rather, Kassie.
“Mum asked me to come sit with you,” she says matter-of-factly and carefree-ly, very much like his lawyer.
He ignores the point she’s trying to drive home, that she’s not here on her own accord. “How are you?”
“I’m sure school is going well too.” “Yes.”
She really doesn’t want to talk. Her expression screams it. Her tone paints it. She won’t even sit, though mum asked her to come sit with him. He decides to not ignore it anymore.
“Look, if your mum forced you and you don’t want to talk now, it’s fine.” Yes, he’s given up. “We can talk when you’re ready.”
Her face doesn’t betray any emotion. She doesn’t care; or at least she doesn’t look like she does. She simply turns to leave. No ‘okay’. No ‘alright’. Nothing. She doesn’t say a word till she gets to the door and then turns to face him again. “Next time, just tell me you’re busy and you don’t have my time. I’ll understand. I’m sort of used to it.”
And she’s also sort of used to slamming doors. And yet again, he’s blown it.
by Vivian Nwajiaku from Nigeria