1. What is your Tax Story?
I had (and still have) phobia for mathematics as a student and, as a result, had the impression that tax was all about calculations. The consequence of this was that when I had to select my elective courses at the University of Lagos, Taxation was not even in contemplation. I selected courses which, looking back today, have no connection with my legal practice and career. Fortunately, things changed on the day that I resumed work as an Associate in Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie. On that day, five of us that were employed together held a meeting with the Partners of the firm. At the meeting, Mr. Dan Agbor stated, among other things, that the Associate that was handling tax (with him) in the firm has resigned and that he wants one of us to replace that person. I looked away form him. Then he asked: “why are you looking away?” to which I responded: “I did not study tax in the university” and, therefore, could not be the one to replaced the Associate that has resigned. To which he responded: “Ok, in that case, you will be the one. You will work with me and will have primary focus on tax.” This was how yours truly got involved in a subject that I had no elementary knowledge of. On the next day, Mr. Agbor asked me to join him on a conference call with one of the accounting firms in which they discussed withholding tax on interest payment, exemptions etc. One thing was clear: I did not understand anything about what was discussed but I took ‘notes’ – you could guess how useful the ‘notes’ were!
2. Was taxation a conscious career choice for you or did it ‘call’ you?
Taxation was not a conscious career choice for me. I would say that it ‘called’ me because it was ‘imposed’ on me by my boss. I accepted the challenge and, today, I can confidently say that ‘imposition’ has been worth it. The subject of tax has now become part of me.
3. What challenges did you face on your career path?
My major challenge when I started my tax practice was zero-lack of knowledge of the subject. I did not study tax in the university because it was an elective. I could remember seeing some of my colleagues back in school going about with ‘big’ laws which they called ‘CITA’, ‘PITA’ and ‘PPTA’ then. These were jargons to me at the time. Therefore, when tax was ‘imposed’ on me, the first thing which I needed to do was to read and read and read the various laws, articles and textbooks on the subject. My boss also assisted by teaching me various aspects of the subject and guiding me on how to respond to clients’ enquiries/questions. Thereafter, I started attending training sessions, seminars etc. These helped to broaden my theoretical and practical knowledge of the subject. Today, I can look back and say that all my efforts (including the initial sleepless nights trying to understand the subject of tax) were all worth it.
The other challenge has to do with the tax laws which are still, mostly, stuck in the 20th century. Most provisions of the tax laws are written in archaic language and sometimes difficult to understand. Our tax laws need to be dynamic and change with the changing times and changes in the way of doing business. For instance, our laws are not suitable for the taxation of businesses in a digital world in which electronic commerce is now the order of the day. While this is happening, our tax laws still look at the concept of having a physical place for business. That needs to change.
The other challenge is the manner in which tax administrators enforce tax laws. They do that in a crude form as if their only interest is to collect taxes without a care for what happens to the taxpayers. They employ all forms of draconian means outside the tax laws in a bid to generate more tax revenue. That is not a healthy tax best practice and needs to stop. It is heartwarming that one of the divisions of the Tax Appeal Tribunal recently held that tax administrators have an obligation to follow the provisions of the laws in their effort to collect taxes.
4. Are they over now or are there still challenges?
I can say the personal challenge of trying to understand the subject of tax is over now. However, the issue of archaic laws is till with us and the unfriendly tax practices of tax administrator remain. There is a need to take a critical look at these. In particular, the National Assembly has an urgent national responsibility to amend the existing tax laws, or repeal the existing ones and enact news ones, to make the laws relevant to the current realities in the ways of doing business.
5. In the era of seeming specialization, what advice do you have for people looking towards starting a career in taxation?
Lawyers don’t generally like anything that has to do with figures hence the phobia for tax – but tax is not all about figures. My colleagues in the office sometimes tell me that tax is complex and difficult and people generally see tax as an area of practice which is boring. To me, tax has become an easy subject to understand and practice – it is fun because, in practice, you will see how the issue of the amount of tax to pay could alter the structure of a transaction. You will see yourself engaged in a balancing act with a view to arriving at a more optimal structure to implement a transaction. What it requires, which will be my advice to a person that intends to take up a career in tax, is to study the laws, follow current developments in the area of tax to have up to date knowledge, pay attention to the tiny details and to have the spirit of ‘I can do it’ – the zeal and perseverance to push beyond the borders. To young lawyers, specialisation in tax is something that they should consider – especially with the current focus of government at all levels on taxation to generate more revenues which is resulting in increasing tax advisory services and in helping with the settlement/litigation of tax disputes.
6. What has been your wildest/ craziest experience as a tax practitioner?
These are many. There was a time earlier in my career we were advising a client on the most optimal structure to set up a private equity fund in Nigeria and how the limited liability companies that are partners in a PE fund set up as a partnership will be taxed. I took a position contrary to my supervisor’s view. We were on a call up to about 2:00am in the morning, my supervisor could not get me to change my position. At the end, my supervisor agreed with my position, we advised the client on the basis of my position and prepared a table with our analysis of the tax effect of the various strictures under consideration. The client sent the table to two of the big four accounting firms, and both firms agreed with our analysis.
Another instance was when I took on a senior partner in one of the big law firms on an issue regarding the exercise of presidential power on tax exemption. This was at a meeting in which various local and international organisations were present. We did not have the law available, so the meeting broke for me to go and look for the law to support my point. When I saw the law, I was shaking (like someone passing through the midst of hungry wolves) looking through it because if it turned out that I was wrong, that could have a detrimental effect on my job – but I turned out to be correct.
7. If there was anything in the tax space you wish you did, or didn’t do, what would it be?
I did not become a chartered tax practitioner and a member of the chartered Institute of Taxation early enough. I only became a member after I had practiced for over 7 years. If I had joined early, I probably would have been a fellow now. I am also not involved in tax advocacy, this is an area which I need to get involved in to see how I can make my contributions to seeking ways to influence making changes to the tax laws and to the way and manner tax is practiced – mostly among the tax administrators.
Joseph Eimunjeze is a Partner in Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie’s banking and finance, capital market, corporate advisory, tax and Fintech teams.
His specialisations also include mergers and acquisitions, insolvency and corporate restructuring, foreign investments and banking regulatory compliance. His corporate advisory experience includes advising local and foreign clients on a diverse range of issues such as investment structure, debt-financing, restructuring, Islamic banking and finance, corporate taxation, petroleum taxation and the restructuring of petroleum sector operations. He also helps to devise tax-efficient transaction structures for achieving optimal tax efficient structures and compliance with tax laws and regulations.
Joseph is a chartered tax practitioner and an associate member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria.