So You No Sabi Play Football by Deniyi L'Ébène

Friday, February 26, 2016
A tax officer moves from Lagos to Abuja and gets a frosty reception from his new director; by Deniyi L'Ébène.

"Oya leave our oga's office this minute! You think say him be your mate? He's telling you what's obtainable and you're telling useless stories. Get out of here!"

It was the first time he raised his voice at me. It was my second time at the Abuja Tax Office and my first time there alone. Mr Ibrahim, the director of the collection office, had pretty much seemed like a nice man a day before when my colleague introduced me to him and his colleagues. So I was dazed with his latest reaction and could only give fast awkward nods, forcing myself to say, "It's okay," as I excused him. My heart beat very fast and my hands shook vigorously as I walked out into the waiting room.

A week ago I was the field officer at the Lagos Tax Office. I was very popular with the tax officers, regardless of their rank. For some reasons that I cannot clearly explain, they seemed to like me a lot. Truthfully, I'm a very cheerful person and would generously lavish my smiles on them any time of the day. I didn't think it would be different in Abuja, since my charming smiles seemed to have always worked. They worked the first day. This got me more confused as I tried to understand the reason for the sudden outburst from the officer.

"The borders are too thick and the formatting is too embellished, it's confusing. Are you even sure this computation is correct?" he said almost immediately after the short exchange of greetings. But I quickly cut in:

"The computations are perfect sir, and the formatting is the exact recommendation by your office sir. You should know my company will do nothing to undermine the operations of your esteemed office. I was here earlier to explain to you, but I was told you had stepped out."

I wish I had been warned to pick my words carefully. He raised his head from the newspaper he had picked up to read after dropping my tax returns on the black stool between the refrigerator and his desk. His red eyes were staring hard at me like a wounded panther. I was puzzled, as I didn't understand what had caused the change. Looking at his face, it was imminent that he was about to express displeasure. However, what was unclear was at what he would be expressing it. I thought about everything I said and about what my body language suggested while talking; the courtesy in my voice and the making sure to keep my gaze on him even though his head was buried in the pages of his newspaper. Unsure of what had changed the color of his sclera from dirty white to blood red, I quickly thought of apologizing before the outburst. Even though I didn't know my offense. And then, with a bang on the table, as though he knew I wanted to apologize and wanted to stop it, he rolled out rhetorical vituperations like the severed tail of a live python.

"Who are you? You say you want to undermine my office? Is it because we let you into this office freely that you have the effrontery to come insult us...? Can people access your own offices freely like this? You arrogant people! In fact I want to see your boss."

The vituperations, like a punctured rubber football down an eternal steep, were becoming annoying and frustrating. The other officers with lower ranks were now in the room with us. I believed they had come to salvage the situation.

"Oga please I don't mean it that way, I can never ever think of undermining your office," I said very fast and pleadingly. But he continued as furious as the first rant. All I said had only fueled his anger:

"Look at this rude and proud man wey say him no sabi play ball dey try teach me my job." Then he turned to his subordinates who were then listening keenly to him:

"Imagine him staring at me straight in the eye as if we are mates, saying he will undermine my office. He even said I'm not punctual at the office. Please send this man out of here now!"

"Gentleman please leave," One of the junior officers said before I could say a word. Still wanting to clarify issues, I forced an awkward smile as I turned to the director trying to explain things furthermore.

"Mr Man get out of our oga's office," a voice roared from behind me before I could utter another word.

The roar startled me as I was caught unawares. At that time, I had become really scared. I felt my legs shake as they conveyed me out of his office. All eyes poached me like an endangered animal at the lobby. They knew I had been a victim of the director's tantrum. I'm sure some of them pitied me as some would curse me and wished I got it even worse.

After having seated at the waiting room for about half an hour, I became settled emotionally but was still racking my head for answers. I had been observing every other person going in and out of the room; they either came out smiling and exchanging valedictory pleasantries with the other PROs or they just left with a worriless face.

"He's like that; fierce and enjoys bullying." This sentence, which contains the exact words of my colleague less than twenty four hours ago as response to my inquiry of why the junior staffs tug their forelock before the director, became etched on my mind like a hot iron on the chest of a new slave.

"Okay, are these guys' tax computations better than mine? No way! This is my strong point and I became a high-flyer in Lagos in less than two months. I was sent here because I'm good. No, because I am exceptional!" I tried to analyze what could have gone wrong as well as psych myself out of the squalid mood.

Tick, tick tick. "Oh my God," I exclaimed as it suddenly all made sense to me. The director was simply angry at me because I said, "I no dey play ball o, I no even sabi." This was why he mentioned it again while reporting me to his subordinates. To sabi play ball in Nigerian pidgin English and in most public offices means to give bribe. It's one of the numerous ways to talk about it. He had arrogantly asked me if I sabi play ball when I entered after greeting him to which I replied in the company of one of my charming smiles:

"I no dey play ball o, I no even sabi." Only this time, my charm had failed me. Sad.

I was sure about us never bribing to facilitate our applications at any office. That was the practice with us in Lagos. And even though most people would pay in cash, they always accepted my smiles. My organization always warned that it was a serious offence whose repercussions could mean dismissal to bribe one's way through with the regulators.

"But if all these guys going in and coming out were not harassed because they sabi play football, so what about my colleague who had been coming here for the past months and always came back happy too?" I thought.

"Does he sabi play football? Could he have been 'playing?'"

I quickly grabbed my phone, stormed out of the waiting room and headed towards the car. I needed to talk to him immediately.

"Hey bro wassup?" I managed to mumble into the phone mouthpiece. The day's trouble and worry had dampened my voice.

"Hey man, I'm good. How is your first day alone going?"

I cleared my throat before replying. "Not fine at all, you need to see the way the director embarrassed me today. He and his boys practically sent me out of his office. No I mean they threw me out of his office."

"Kla kla kla kla kla kla he he he he he oh my god kla kla kla." There goes the most awkward and annoying sound on earth. Laughter. His own. He was laughing at me.

I became livid but had to hold myself. I was eager to know why he chose to laugh at me after narrating such an ordeal to him.

"Bro, that's very normal here," he added after the long silence I gave him.

"Normal? What's normal?"

"It is very normal to get embarrassed or thrown out of their offices here. If you're lucky, you'll get at least a couple more."

"And if I'm not?" I retorted.

He gave a laugh again; a short one though then he replied. "You'll experience it amply. But don't worry, I have proven methods to help you deal with this. We will go there together tomorrow. You probably were blunt in declining their 'football playing'. A little touch of diplomacy would have just done the trick bro. But don't worry, all will be fine by morrow."

"Thanks man. I think you're right. I turned down the football immediately. I appreciate the advice. See you tomorrow bro."

"Alright bro, have a good wrap of kilishi bless the rest of the evening for you."

"Kilishi ko kilishi ni. Bye Mike!" I replied with a reflexive smile on hearing the kilishi before finally heaving a deep sigh of relief.


  1. A very interesting window into the world of tax office politics in Lagos...a hard world to stay straight in it seems. Frank B

    1. Thank you Frank B for taking out time to read and comment. I appreciate it.

  2. I hope that Nigerian taxes are easier than in the US. No one person understands it all.

    1. Thank you Doug for reading and commenting. Yes, the Nigerian tax system is evolving although it takes a lot of courage to remain sanely professional.

  3. The boss enjoys bullying - a universal experience many of us have fallen victim to at some point. Wandering what we could have done, should have done differently. Yes. Nice seeing this familiar scene in an unfamiliar (to many) location. Thank you, Deniyi L'Ébène.

  4. I love this. Funny how we get so many VIPs (Vagabonds In Power)...

    1. Lol @ Vagabond in power. Thanks so much Olalekan Adio

  5. #NiceOne. More grease to your elbow.

  6. I have been in situations where I knew I was speaking plain English (to other Americans!) and knew I was not being understood. This is exactly what it felt like -- you captured it perfectly.

    1. Thank you so much for taking out time to read this and comment. I'm humbled. Thanks!

  7. Vry nice piece honey ,glad no names was mentioned but u can speak English sha! U know who #Tongueout

    1. :D Thank you very much. I find myself very humbled.

  8. The insane rules of the game - the ones that trip us all up! Well done,

    1. Yeah insane rules of the game. Thanks a lot Ceinwen. I appreciate!

  9. This comment is a long time coming, guess the first time I was speechless, now I can talk. Deniyi, I am proud of your ability to write - this is talent in its rawest form. You have only just begun. Shine on, Star Boy! BTW, why do I think this has to do with cables? #justwondering