One wet afternoon, I was informed by the PP’s secretary that he wanted me in his office. It was the third time he had called me into his office since I joined the firm. He still wasn’t responding properly whenever I greeted him. But it had improved from no response to grumbled responses. He was on the phone when I entered his cozy office. The office was not as illuminated as the other offices of the firm. The illumination was just enough to read as it had more fancy lights befitting of a bedroom than the regular bulbs of an office. The PP had good taste in furniture. The whole of the furniture in his office was made of wood and wood only. The office was not as big as some offices of the top dogs in some Lagos Island law firms I had seen around. Excluding the bathroom and toilet on the left hand corner of the office, the office should be about 20 x 15 ft in floor area. The wall facing the entrance door had been covered by a wooden shelf with loads of law books and files. Apart from his personal table, there was another round table at the right hand corner with four comfortable chairs around it. I loved sitting in that office; it had the feeling of a bedroom. I always imagined what it felt like to be a boss.
‘What kind of decision is that? Eh hen se n ti e fe so profession yi da ni yen? And so?’
‘Gabi, listen… What about the cost? Hello, hello… Hehn?’
Gabi was a nickname of one of his university classmates who was then a Justice of the Court of Appeal.
‘Hello… Eh hen and so what? That is out of the question.’
I was looking at his well ironed designer shirt. It was most likely a Pierre Cardin. He loved Pierre Cardin.
He beckoned to me to have a seat as he was rocking on his exquisite chair. He was shaking his head to whatever His Lordship was saying at the other end. I installed myself in one of the chairs around the roundtable and continued to look round the familiar environment whilst he continued with his phone call.
‘How could they give that kind of decision? Eh? Hello, hello… can you hear me? Hello, hello, hello…’
‘I can hear you now. Eh hen, what happened to all the decisions on substantial justice? The decisions on not visiting the sin of counsel on the litigant, what about those ones? Eh? Ki lo n so yi? So you are on their side, abi? And so? How do we explain these to the clients? Ok. Ok. We shall all see. Ok. Ok oo. E ku ise o. Ok no wahala.’
‘When is that one? Are you coming? Abuja is sweet na. Ok cheers.’
He cut the line and put his mobile phone on the table. He sat up with his arms resting on the arms of the chair and looked at me and I looked straight back at him. He rubbed his eyes, he looked away from me and then down and then at his neatly arranged mahogany table like he forgot why he called me. He remembered and his face creased into that familiar expression it had taken since the Okafor v Nwaeke episode began. He picked a sheet of paper from one of the few papers in front of him and handed it to me. I gently stretched my arm to collect it and I saw the tremor in his hand as I collected the document. I saw the familiar signature of one of our clients, Mr. Elesho. It was just three lines and it ended with ‘you have killed me.’ Of course, it had to do with Okafor v Nwaeke. Whilst we were preparing to deal with the effects of the decision, Mr. Elesho wrote to us that we had killed his case because a Court of Appeal process in his appeal against an insurance company was signed in the name of the law firm. He always got every process we filed in his matter so he must have heard about the decision. We were not surprised about his letter. What I dreaded most had happened.
Mr. Elesho was a friend of a friend of the PP’s younger brother who was a naval officer. The PP loved and respected his brother; everyone close to the PP knew that. The young naval officer had been a blessing to his practice. I had never met the navy man before but from what I heard about him, he was a lovable person and quite generous too.
‘Ah, navy man na beta person oo. Na good person.’ Our Office Manager would say.
And whenever our Office Manager said that someone was good, it meant that person always threw money around and he always got his. He never wasted his accolades on non-profitable people.
Mr. Elesho was an important client in his own right. He used to work for a company in the oil and gas industry. He was an intelligent guy and very comfortable too. He was not an everyday client that you got. He was a special person, a special client. I gathered he was a first class student at the University of Ibadan. The good news about Mr. Elesho was that you got referrals of clients from him and once you agreed a fee with him, he would pay as agreed. Although the route to that agreement might be turbulent; but once it was settled, he would pay as agreed and promptly too. Every other thing about him was bad news.
Mr. Elesho never liked to part with money and he was as frugal as he was thorough. He gave instructions like he owned the firm. The PP avoided him like a plague. He got the drafts of all the letters we prepared on his behalf for vetting and it was upon his approval that they were dispatched. He got the drafts of all the court processes of his matters for vetting and it was upon his final approval that they were filed. He was like the Head of Litigation of his matters. And there were several of them. He had sued his Head of Family, his Landlady, an automobile service company, a journalist, his second son, an insurance company and an airline. The latest was his former employer. I even heard he wanted to sue one of his ex-girlfriends but it had not happened for lack of evidence. The gist was that she had promised to marry him but reneged after she met a white guy. He had never been sued before. He was always the Claimant or the Plaintiff. The strange thing about him was that he always won all his matters. If he lost at the trial court, he would be victorious on appeal. At the time I joined the firm, he just got paid by an automobile service company that served as his mechanic through an out-of-court settlement. Before any document was sent to him the whole firm would look at it carefully because if he saw any grammatical error, he would correct it and send a letter in that regard.
‘Ehhhnn. If you get a letter of correction from Elesho, hnnnmm; you would not want your parents that financed your legal education to see the letter oo. They would think they wasted their money on your empty head.’ The Office Manager told me.
I had not seen any of such letters or witnessed any of all the things I heard about him. He had been a client before I joined and I guess the firm was used to him and had mastered how to deal with him before I joined. Now, I had dropped the ball; Elesho’s ball.
I remembered the first time I was told to do a letter of an update in respect of one of his several matters. At that time I had never heard of him. I quickly did it and I gave it to the Head of Litigation for approval for dispatch. The Head of Litigation told me to give it to another lawyer. The lawyer told me to give it to another lawyer. At the end of that day, six lawyers including the Head of Litigation had read it. The letter could still not be sent out. It was going to wait for the final approval of the PP before dispatch. At that time, I had been at the firm for three months. No letter of update passed through such scrutiny to the best of my knowledge. Eventually, the letter was dispatched. My curiosity got the better of me. I went to the ground floor, to the office of the support staff.
I walked up to the Office Manager and asked, ‘who is Mr. Elesho?’
The ground office went silent.
‘Is he here?’ The Office Manager asked alarmed.
‘Did he call you?’
‘Call me? No. I don’t even know him.’
‘Did you receive any letter from him?’ He attacked me with questions and looked searchingly at me with his face contorted.
‘No.’ I replied.
‘Then what is the problem?’ he asked.
‘I just want to know who he is, that is all.’
He looked a bit relieved but it appeared he was not going to volunteer any information.
‘Why does the whole firm have to vet a letter of an update to him? What is it about him?’ I asked curiously.
He was more relaxed. The others who were all ears but pretended to be doing something then actually started doing what they ought to be doing. That week, I met Mr. Elesho. Not in person but I got all the accounts of his exploits. One thing was clear from all accounts; the man was trouble. No lawyer in the firm vetted or prepared Mr. Elesho’s documents in a hurry. We used to joke that ‘you do not attend to Elesho’s document on an empty stomach’. It had to be critically perused on full stomach. A paying client though. But you were always threading on thin ice with him.
‘Go and prepare a reply to him and bring the case file to me.’ The PP said.
I nodded and wobbled out of his office with the horrid thought that I was the remote cause of that letter. I really would not want my parents to see the letter. I continued to stare at the three-line contents of the letter. The tremor in the PP’s hand had flown into mine as my left hand was shaking as I continued to read the letter. I changed the letter to the right hand; the right hand was shaking too. I began to feel feverish. I am going to join the army after this. I reminded myself
I prepared the letter. It was a long epistle. It took seven working days before it went through the desks of all the lawyers; the PP approved and we dispatched.
As the days rolled by, articles were published; interviews were granted and most of the opinions were against the Supreme Court’s decision. By the time the effect of the decision began to manifest, we began to hear stories. My classmates told me things that were strange. I was not alone in this world of misfortune after all. Our firm was not so badly affected. The decision was dealing with lawyers. If only Elesho’s matter was not affected, things would not have looked so bad. No other client had us worried like Elesho.
We received hearing notice from the Court of Appeal. Mr. Elesho’s matter was in a fortnight. We did meetings upon meetings, research upon research. The reports we got from colleagues were not encouraging. It was like the Court of Appeal was going to empty its registry. Appeals, applications, briefs were struck out in droves. We were not optimistic of any success but we felt prepared. The day came and we went to court. It was the Head of Litigation, Patience and I who went for the matter. Patience was a new wig doing her national youth service externship in the firm.
The Court of Appeal was sandwiched between the High Court of Lagos and the Kings College on Tafawa Balewa Drive. The building had two floors; the ground floor and the upper floor. The floors were tarred in the popular terrazzo style of the 60s. The building used to house the Supreme Court of Nigeria before the apex court was moved to Abuja. To me, from the outside, the building did not look like a court. Certainly it had the look of a government office and one could call it the name of any government department but not a court. I liked standing in the first landing from the foyer at the upper floor of the court to enjoy the view it offered. One could see the lush green cricket pitch of the Tafawa Balewa Square at a distance with the east pavilion of the Square rearing its head to block the rays of the morning sun on the pitch with the Square looking more like a stadium than a square in the European parlance. One could see the parking lot of the High Court several yards away with lawyers and litigants trooping in. You could see the young lads of the Kings College in their executive school uniforms in groups of fours and fives on their way to school. I loved the view.
There were just two court rooms in the Court of Appeal – Court 1 and Court 2. We were in Court 1. We entered the court room and we saw lawyers still jostling to write their names and to sign the cause lists. The Silks were more than ten in the inner bar.
The court room was a square auditorium of around 200 x 200 ft in floor area and about forty ft in room height in my estimation. It looked more like a warehouse stacked with rows of chairs and several hundreds of documents. The front quarter of the court room was occupied by the Justices, the Registrars and the Recorders. The platform in the front quarter was in two levels. The higher which was about six feet up was where the Justices sat in their eminence with a carved coat of arms hanging on the wall behind them. The second tier was about three feet high where the Registrars and the other court staff sat. The remainder of the three quarter of the court room consisted mainly of the Bar and the litigants’ seats. The Bar had three parts which I would describe as the center, right and left. The center which had the Inner Bar consisted of four rows of long chairs and desks in the center of the court room directly facing the Bench. The second and third parts of the Bar were two rows of long chairs and desks to the left and right facing each other on an elevated two feet platform and both overlooking the Bar at the center. The set of chairs at the back of the centre Bar was for the litigants. The giant air conditioners adorned the front of the walls at designated spots like some kinds of external pillars. We sat down at the right wing of the Bar.
At about 8:50 a.m. Mr. Elesho strolled into the court room looking like an over fed military officer. I wanted to acknowledge his presence but when I saw that the Head of Litigation avoided his side, I copied him. He was wearing a white Lacoste tee-shirt. His head was dotted with several grey hairs and the military punk hair style he carried was still fresh; most likely two or three days old. His thick neck was adorned with his probable eighteen carat gold necklace. The expression on his face was that of distaste. He sat down and started looking all over like a spy. Patience had taken over my chore of attending to the cause list to register our attendance. She made her way to the front swaying left and right on her high heel sandals. Although she wasn’t my type of girl but on a normal day, I would have allowed my thoughts to stray on some ideas about her lower backside and what could be done with same behind closed doors but Okafor v Nwaeke had re-structured my thoughts then.
Our matter was number five on the cause list of twenty two matters. After about fifteen minutes when we came in we noticed the ruffle in the front amongst the court staff which signified that the Honorable Justices were on their way in.
Gboua! Gboua! Gboua! We heard the familiar three thud sounds.
‘Courtttttttttt.’ One of the Registrars of the court announced the arrival of the Justices in his legato voice. The Justices filed out in their traditional style. They bowed to us; we bowed back and they bowed to themselves. Justice Shittem Omobiyi, Justice Caroline Nbakwe and Justice Yahya Nganusa formed the panel of Court 1 at the time. Justice Shittem Omobiyi was the Lead Justice. The business of the day started. As was expected, the Silks took their rights to call their matters out of turn. True to the stories we heard, the striking out began. It was like when an akara seller would be taking out the akara balls in a hurry without getting fried to the traditional color of light brown in threes and fours with her long spoon out of the hot groundnut oil on the fire so that she could quickly sell to her impatient and waiting customers on a long queue. No matter how beautiful your argument was; no matter how much you sought to distinguish your matter from Okafor v Nwake, your akara would be taken out of the oil. In a very compassionate voice, Justice Omobiyi would ask you the magic question – ‘Counsel, so what do you want to do with this application?’
Out of the eleven matters that were called before ours, nine were affected by Okafor v Nwaeke. All the affected processes were struck out save for one where an influential Silk argued extensively citing authorities upon authorities.
At regular intervals, Elesho would shake his head as the processes were being struck out. The curve at the right side of his mouth gave an idea of what was going on in that big head of his. He would throw a look at us in the Bar and would look down and shake his head again. I had a feeling he was shaking his leg too. As for me, I had calculated the interval at which he looked at us and when he looked elsewhere. When he looked elsewhere, I would look at him. The Head of Litigation did not even look his way. Somehow, I was not feeling the pressure like I felt before. Perhaps, because I saw that we were not alone in the crisis.
The influential Silk cited several judicial authorities and was not going to give in easily. The calm Justice Omobiyi and her team patiently allowed the highly revered Silk to make his submissions and in her feeble compassionate voice still eventually asked the most dreaded question – ‘Chief, what do you want to do with this Notice of Appeal?’
The Silk sighed and prayed the court for a date to supply more authorities. His prayer was granted but we all knew the fate the matter would suffer; the influential Silk’s akara would be taken out of the oil.
When they called our matter Mr. Elesho reluctantly stood up and flashed a mean look at the representative of the Respondent, an insurance company. Before the wonder question was asked, our Head of Litigation wasted no time; he begged to withdraw our tripod application and same was struck out. Mr. Muniru, the Respondent’s Counsel asked for the cost of the day. No Counsel had asked for cost that day in all the matters that were struck out on account of Okafor v Nwaeke. Mr. Muniru asked for cost. He made a submission for about ten minutes on the application for cost. He asked for N500, 000. The court granted N30, 000. He was pompous and notorious for being merciless and ruthless especially on costs. I had already taken a dislike to him. We were in two other matters with him apart from the presents. He was the Mr. Perfect type of person and rubbed your fallibility in your face. He had already collected almost N60, 000 in costs in those matters. I craved for a day to deal with him in court. Our case was not that bad, it just happened that Mr. Elesho was in involved.
Before we rose, Mr. Elesho had disappeared. We left the court and headed for the office. When we got to the office, Mr. Elesho was already in the office. The PP was not in the office. I was sure he deliberately avoided the office so that he would not have to deal with Mr. Elesho. Mr. Elesho entered the office of the Head of Litigation and I imagined what was going on in that office. The Head of Litigation would hear the story of his miserable life. But I trusted him; he would not even show any sign of irritation; he would continue to pacify Elesho. I could only think of one more person as professionally composed as he was; a female Judge of the High Court of Lagos State. I wished I could have that level of composure in all situations. It was a rare virtue.
It was a short meeting. I reckoned the Head of Litigation would have assured him that there was nothing to worry about. Elesho came out of the office. His face was totally animated in anger.
‘Do not worry sir. Everything would be sorted out…’ The Head of Litigation gently assured Elesho in his ever passive voice.
He raised his eyebrow and looked back at the Head of Litigation who paused midway into his statement. Elesho looked like Mombasa, the Lion King.
‘I should not worry, eh? Why did you have to act against the law?’ He interjected.
‘As you saw in court, we were not the only firm affected.’
‘No o. Don’t tell me that, please. That matter may not go on this year again. How could you be wasting people’s time like that? What if the insurance company went under tomorrow? Don’t tell me that, please. Are you telling me every Lawyer in that court room had this problem? He asked the Head of Litigation.
‘What is that name they used to call this your firm … James Bond abi double o seven de ni or what? You should be called Baba Suwe or triple zero.’ He snapped as he made his way to the door.
Mr. Elesho was a winner. It was useless arguing with him. The Head of Litigation just nodded and looked away.
We prepared another application and re-filed. We did not get the hearing notice until after three months. We were going to have another day in court with Mr. Muniru.
TO BE CONTINUED