The death of Eric Eccles James, driving force of James International’ Business Empire at the age of 64 certainly calls for eulogy. Yet another warrior of the soil has gone down with the sunset but the dreams and passions that moved them still flow on, continuing to motivate those who pick up the mantle. Hence the need to chronicle their lives, what they stood for, the vicissitudes of their earthly pathways.
Eric James was for many years a name that Sierra Leoneans equated with economic business. James International was and still is a household trademark, a business empire that spans at least three generations beginning in the early forties with Eric’s parents the late Horace Eccles James and Mama Princess James.
In those formative years the family was involved principally in trade which took the matriarch Mama James, into the depths of Sierra Leone’s hinterland. The family business was feeling out and Mama Princess James established business outlets in Freetown, Koindu, Kissi Teng Chiefdom, Kailahun district, Yamandu, Sandoh chiefdom, Kono district and in Macenta in the Republic of Guinea among other places.
The family business saw the young Eric leaving the Sierra Leone Grammar School for Macenta to assist his mother. This compelled him to continue his schooling in that French speaking town. He became fluent in French.
What many younger Sierra Leoneans do not know was that Eric, the ace businessman that he was, had for almost two decades cut a fine niche as an international broadcaster. His rich, trained voice was booming out from the portals of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) from 1967, a time when it was still a novelty to see an African face at Bush House (the BBC’s broadcasting house) or to find an African cradling the microphone in far reaching programmes like Eric’s, Post Mark Africa. Those were the days of Pete Myers who was presenting the BBC Morning Show which was the fore-runner of the current `Network Africa.’ Eric’s `Post Mark Africa’ programme was already touching the hearts of millions in the emerging African countries that had won independence in often grueling ways from their colonial masters. The new African was proud in postulating his/her Africaness. The new identity that yelled out `I’m black, I’m proud’ resonated from President Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan Africanist Ghana to Sekou Toure’s revolutionary Guinea to Abdel Nassers Egypt on to Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.
It was the African Risorgimento (reawakening) that manifested itself in a complexity of ways throughout the continent. It blended with the black emancipation movements in the United States with the evocative philosophies of Marcus Garvey, the spiritual emotive dream-force of Rev. Martin Luther King, the radicalist stridency of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure). Those fused with the struggle to free Southern Africa, including Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and then Portuguese speaking Mozambique and Angola.
In such a powerful movement of Africans and people of African origin, Eric James’ `Post Mark Africa’ was a chronicler of the age with the objectivity that the BBC is famed for.
Eric’s rich tenor voice sounded across the airwaves as his fluid quick wit and pulsating diction easily won millions of new listeners to the BBC throughout Africa. Post Mark Africa’s presentation of issues was middle-of-the-road in style part serious part light hearted. It grew in dimension and in listenership and in less than three years it was one of the BBC’s most popular African programmes, attracting listeners from all corners of the continent.
But Eric had other and bigger ideas. He had got feelers from West Germany’s international radio; Radio Deutschewelle (Voice of Germany) that they were expanding their African Service. Under its Director of the African Service, the ever-driving Dieter Brauer, Deutschewelle was wooing big talents to propel the vocal sounds coming from what was endearingly referred to as the Grand Old City of Cologne. They had the resources and the sophisticated equipment to entice the big names. They wanted Eric to do a breakfast show that would hit Africa with a bang. Their terms were winnable.
Eric innovated his programme `The early birdies’ and then the big one: `Eric the Peril’ show. With repeated scoops in global personalities being interviewed in that morning programme, the Eric the peril show was a huge hit from its very inception in 1969. At its height, Eric had earned a huge reputation as a radio host, a disc jockey extraordinaire and as a promoter. He promoted one of America’s first musical megastars, `Isaac Hayes,’ in the early 1970’s, on Hayes’ tour of West Germany and other parts of Europe. Deutschewelle was rolling on. It had top of the line personalities: Ruth Weiss, Nigeria’s Peter Enahoro who was a journalist’s own wordsmith, Sierra Leone’s David John etc.
Eric landed me the job of correspondent for the global programme `Window on the world’, which required my reporting and commenting on the news breaking events in Sierra Leone. And they were pretty heady enough: the 1970 assassination attempt on Siaka Stevens by Brigadier Bangura and co, their trial and eventual execution; the 1973 attempt on Prime Minister Christian Kamara-Taylor’s life; the trials of Mohamed Forna, Ibrahim Taqi and others and their executions and a host of others in the 1970s.
There were other aspects of Eric James that people did not know. Considering that he hardly ever drove a vehicle in his later business years, many would be astounded to learn that he was such a lover of fast cars that while in Europe he revelled in racing speed cars though from an amateurish perspective. It couldn’t have been otherwise, a professional racing car driver can hardly find time for extra involvement.
Eric met, courted and married the beautiful Helga, an indigene of Cologne. She was also at Deutschewelle though she was more on the technical side. We would sit in the twilight in Eric’s flat at Grungurtelstrasse, working on concepts while Helga pieced out things on the electric typewriter.
Eric James was an innovator through and through. He was at all times brimming with mind blowing ideas of how Africa and particularly his own country, Sierra Leone, should move on. Like many, he was aghast that Sierra Leone, potentially one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources was still in the list of poorest nations. His mother, Mama James, an ardent Christian who would fly to Israel on religious maters, believed the problem was religious. That Sierra Leoneans had turned their backs to the Almighty Creator who placed all the bounties of the world in this territory to make it a paradise. Hence the plummeting and the nose-dive.
Eric came home in the late 1980’s to help make a difference. His flair for innovation saw him, now as head of the James International company, flexing out into pre-financing, agricultural produce on a large scale, mining, haulage, penny-penny supermarkets, cash n carry shopping outlets, landed property import/export, distillery etc. The Eric James innovative flair was manifesting itself. At its height James International was a multimillion dollar outflexing business empire that could hold its own with many of its kind in the continent. The railway went, so James International replaced the railway with some of the biggest haulage trucks that the nation had ever seen, plying the routes, transporting raw and finished goods every where.
The other siblings particularly, Tunde and Keddy all took part in what was intrinsically a family business. Eric’s son, Eke, was also learning the family business. Mama James had knit a close friendship with numerous chiefs and elders in the provincial towns she did business with. Many were the children who simply walked into the James household and stayed as family.
In one flow of his innovativeness Eric brought in one hundred (100) small scale vans that he made available to farmers mostly in the Eastern province. They were to pay for those in cash or kind. The objective was that with mobility the farmers would be better able to subscribe to the produce buying programme that `James International’ was pursuing. James International was at the time distilling gin, mining for precious minerals and working on a ship building project, the ideas were overflowing. It was a business empire that was Sierra Leonean and home grown a Sierra Leonean success story.
The eleven year rebel war took a cruel toll on the business. Much of the company’s investment was in the provinces. On many occasions, rebels ambushed James International trucks and trailers while farmers were brutalized by marauding gangs. Many vehicles were commandeered; mining sites were roughly grabbed by the drugged rebel gangs. It was a huge disappointment for the man who had put in so much, investing in his native land. “Typical”, he told me with a wry grin. But you could see he was deeply hurt.
“It’s as if nature took all the bad people and put them in one country!” he once told me after somebody he had trusted woefully let him down. Eric had so many friends of various inclinations and his office saw a daily flow of press people, business people, politicians, sports people and the like. There were youths also who just wanted sponsorship for all sorts of ideas, some weird indeed. Eric chatted, joked with them all and helped whom he could. Before he had a terrible fall that partially affected his movements he had always been humorous with a quick wit. He was not averse to an evening cigar or two with a glass of whisky.
“No more whisky?” I asked him one day after he had completed his daily session with his physiotherapist. He gave me his infectious grin.
“Look, Ricky, I have to beat this thing. I must beat it”.
Well, fate took over in a South Central Regional hospital in Petal, Missisipi in the USA on 10th July, and Sierra Leone has lost a true patriot who lived and breathed, yearning and moving for his country to emerge from its slough of despond and become the beacon of light and progress that the good Lord meant it to be.
May His Soul rest in Perfect Peace.
By Arika Awuta-Coker