ALL the way from Oxford University where he is a Professor of Economics, Paul Collier, bearded like one of my favourite English writers D.H. Lawrence, had flown down to Lagos to give a lecture on how to develop Lagos into a modern city, as part of the annual birthday lecture series of Prof Pat Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership held on February 6, 2017. It was a lecture greeted with a standing ovation at the Muson Centre, Lagos. Governor Ambode of Lagos State was there, furiously taking down notes totaling four pages. Among the guests was the Ooni of Ife who came with his sizeable entourage, dressed in white.
At the end of the lecture, the exhausted Prof Collier carrying a heavy bag was mobbed by autograph-seeking youths who had some questions for him. As the English professor was leaving the hall, a rogue whom he mistook for one of the Ooni’s people asked to assist him with carrying the bag. He handed it to him trustingly and like magic, the thief vanished into the thin air in a twinkle of an eye, with everything gone—money, passport, air ticket and most painful of all, a laptop filled with the professor’s writings. “My soul is missing,” a distraught Prof. Collier told me, a day after. I had gone to interview Prof Utomi for a book I am writing on one of the icons of African business when I stumbled on this piece of shaming story about Nigeria. It is really, really shameful and embarrassing to think of how Nigerians have totally lost their sense of dignity. As he sat there moping and waiting for a miracle to happen, Collier initially didn’t want to talk.
Even if he was going to grant me an interview, “not the silly theft of a bag,” he said. But using the skill of a reporter smelling news, I managed to convince him to give his horse’s mouth account of how he lost his bag, so that the story can be reported and a miracle could happen with his bag and its content recovered. Here is his account: “On that day, I was about leaving the hall. There was an awful lot of people around me. And I was really tired after giving a long lecture. And my bag was rather heavy. So this man said to me: ‘Can I carry your bag?’ “I thought he was part of the entourage of his Royal Highness. I thought this man in white was part of the entourage, but he wasn’t. That was how I lost my bag. “Fortunately, we have a photograph of him. By the time I emerged from the great crowd of young people who wanted to talk to me, it was too late.
Then I realised that this man was gone. “I was very satisfied by the reception of the lecture. The Lagos State governor was there, several deputy governors were there. And they gave me standing ovation. The governor while addressing the audience said he took four pages of notes. “So do I regret coming? Of course not! “The kernel of my message was: To make Lagos a productive and livable city requires a very active public policy decongesting Lagos. There are too many cars on the road. Not enough buses. What I recommend is: taxi cars and subsidised buses. Lagos is not for the rich few. Clear the roads of cars and give way to buses. In Oxford where I live, I never use my car. Like everyone else, I use buses. ‘Return my stolen bag and its content’ “Nightmares like this come and go. It can happen anywhere. Let’s hope the guy gets caught. I need my stuff back. They are of no use to him, but absolutely vital to me. “Did I have money in it? It isn’t about money. I did have a laptop. That laptop has a lot of my work on it. I need that bag.
Money doesn’t matter. Most valuable to me are the writings in there. And they are not useful for anybody else. And I need that. “My soul is missing, because I put myself in my writing. That’s my identity. As I said, there were hundreds of people in that hall that gave me standing ovation. What would they say to this guy? I think they would say: ‘Give it back!’ “I wasn’t paid to come here. Because of the stolen bag I missed my flight last night. I paid a heavy price for that. Stereotyping “Never mind the stereotype about Nigeria or about Lagos being a dangerous place. I have been coming to Lagos for over 30 years. I like Lagos. I like the people of Lagos. I don’t like all the people, but I like the vast majority of the people in that hall and they like what they heard. “This guy should feel ashamed of what he has done. But the most important thing is to make amends: Get me the laptop back. Get me my passport back. My passport is of no use to anybody. Without that I can’t travel. I’ve got a very, very busy travel schedule which would be completely cancelled because I can’t do it without a passport. “So this guy has really messed a lot of people up. So readers of The Sun, here is my appeal to you: We’ve got the photo of the guy who did it. Put the guy’s photo in the Sun. There would be loads of people who would say: ‘I know this guy.’ “I have no interest in punishment and that sort of thing. I just want restitution of the things that to me are vital.