Friday, April 21, 2017

Dubai: The World’s Vegas - A Response

Sultan Al Qassemi’s response to the latest Dubai-bashing article is perfect

A journalist spent about 12 hours in Dubai. Went to two malls and a skyscraper. And he thinks he’s got the city covered. We’re sick of this trope, and it turns out Sultan Al Qassemi is too…

We’ve seen it before. A journalist spends less than 24 hours in Dubai, a diverse city of 2.8 million people, and then writes an article in which they claim to be able to sum up an entire metropolis via a few hundred words (while showing off their ability to write clever metaphors, etc).

And a fresh New Yorker article predictably called Dubai: The World’s Vegas by Andrew Marantz does just that. The writer starts out by describing his day-long layover in Dubai as “eerily frictionless”. Ooh, ominous, cue the horror movie music, don’t you just hate it when a day’s travel goes well?
Another journalist spent about 12 hours in Dubai a la Germaine Greer and is now an expert on the place… Photo: 
He then describes Dubai’s skyline as he sees it from the Burj Khalifa as “garishly, unapologetically artificial”. Umm, we hate to break it to you, all city skylines are fairly artificial by design. Last time we checked, buildings weren’t borne from earthquakes over thousands of years, etc. Also, we’ve been to New York, there are a lot of buildings in that city.
Marantz then talks us through walking around Dubai Mall (shock horror, a shopping centre is commercial!), before moving on to Ski Dubai (that old chestnut) and by midnight he’s back at the airport ready to board another plane. You get the drift…
The fact is all cities have their issues, because when you throw a few million people together in the modern world you will get some problems, but we’re incredibly tired of the whole ‘I-spent-24-hours-in-Dubai-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy-article-about-skyscrapers-and-malls’ thing.

And it turns out art and architecture commentator Sultan Al Qassemi is over it too, and he took to Twitter to tell his 500,000+ followers about it…

“Pity that Western publications are so readily willing to publish any trashy article that bashes Dubai,” he wrote today after seeing the New Yorker article. “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.”
Our thoughts exactly!

He then lists off just some of the things the writer could have done in the city with day’s layover:

“Why didn’t he and his wife go to Al Serkal to see the art galleries, go to Al Fahidi Fort area for turn of the century Gulf architecture, Shindagha for the numerous small museums, the many beaches, December 2nd Street for the large public murals, the many exhibitions at the World Trade Centre (there was bound to have been something depending on which date they were in town), take an abra across the creek, visit the gold, spice and rug markets, see the century-old Hindu temple, walk around the bustling streets of Deira and see some superb modern architecture and the many parks including Mushrif to see the indigenous Ghaf tree woodland.”
Al Fahidi Historical District
Al Fahidi
“He visited two malls and a skyscraper,” Al Qassemi adds. Hear hear!
“This is like me visiting Chicago for the first time ever and for ONE day and going to West Monroe and Garfield Park and then writing about what a violent, homicidal, dangerous city it is. Would the New Yorker allow me to publish that?”
We think not.
Dear Western journalists – we know many of you have a lovely turn of phrase, but next time you want to write a story about Dubai, why not a) speak to some people b) spend more than 24 hours here. Also, ask yourself, would you write about any other world city this way?
We think not.
Why not take a stroll through the fascinating – and very central – suburb that is Al Bada? (Home to some of the city’s best bread shops.)
Remember, there are more than 100 nationalities living in the UAE.
This past Christmas I (as in Nyree from What’s On) was in Dubai, I sat at a table with three Syrians, a Scot, a Zimbabwean, a South African, an Englishwoman and a Russian (and I’m Kiwi); because, unlike in many cities, people in Dubai genuinely interact with the different nationalities co-habitating around them.
We think that’s worth celebrating.
Diwali celebrations at a Sikh Temple in Jebel Ali. Photo: Getty Images
Also, anyone who says there’s no ‘history’ in the UAE needs to go sit in the naughty corner for a bit because hey, guess what, just because somewhere was ‘formed’ as the modern idea of a nation only a few decades ago, doesn’t mean time didn’t exist before that.
Ask all the archaeologists who found 125,000-year-old tools in the Jebel Fayra area a few years ago about that.
Okay, we’re ranting. We’ll stop now.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A history of Wahhabism and the hijacking of the Muslim faith

A history of Wahhabism and the hijacking of the Muslim faith

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” - George Orwell

Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab 0204c
Our century so far has been overshadowed by a plague which roots, western powers have proclaimed, can be found in Islam and its practice. And though politicians have been careful not to publicly brand all Muslims terrorists, the narrative has nevertheless been one of suspicion and assumption. The words terror and Islam have been juxtaposed too many times in the media for anyone to believe that it was not by “design.”  There has been a war of words against both Islam and Muslims. Its aim is rather simple and only too predictable since it falls within an equation of greed and cynicism.

By ridiculing Islam and dehumanizing its followers, western powers have essentially laid the ground for intervention - positioning their armies within a narrative of moral salvation and liberation when their aims are everything but.
Iraq serves a perfect example. Even though US soldiers committed heinous crimes against Iraqis, despite the rapes, the raids and the mass massacres; in the face of systematic tortures and aggravated human rights violations, Washington still claimed moral high ground, arguing the greater good required decisive actions.
Truth is, from the moment the towers of the Trade Center tumbled down to the ground in great swirls of smoke and ashes, the MENA and with it all Muslims within it, have been lined up as sacrificial lambs to the altar of imperialism.
If anyone and anything has benefited from this grand war on terror, it is surely weapons dealers and all those behind who feeds corporate America its fill of blood. The signs are everywhere for those who care to see!
Terror was engineered and unleashed as a weapon of mass destruction and a political trojan horse. What better way to control the narrative and outcome of wars but by creating the very crisis, one intends to find solutions to, while keeping a hand in both pots?And if speaking the truth is conspiratorial theorism then so be it!
If not for 9/11 Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq would not have been invaded. Arguably, without the war on terror Americans would still enjoy some of their civil liberties, and terminologies such as rendition and institutionalized torture might not have become generic terms. But then again corporations would not have seen their bottom lines explode under the influx of billions of dollars in weapon sales, security deals, and oil concessions the way it did.
The terms “follow the money” takes on a completely different meaning when correlated to terror.
But if corporate America has indeed played the terror card to forward its own very selfish and radical form of capitalism, it did not invent the ideology of terror per se - it only rebranded and repackaged it to fit its purpose.
It is again in history we must look to understand how this evil - Wahhabism, came to be in the first place; and under whose influence it first sparked into life. There too, the shadow of imperialism lurks ...
It is crucial to understand though that ISIS, terror’s modern manifestation and expression, carries no tie with Islam. NONE!
Actually both Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali warned us against this black plague.
In Kitab Al Fitan – a compilation of hadiths (Islamic tradition) relating to the end of times put together by prominent scholar Nuyam bin Hammad in 229 AH – Imam Ali recalled the Prophet saying,
“If you see the black flags, then hold your ground and do not move your hands or your feet. A people will come forth who are weak and have no capability, their hearts are like blocks of iron. They are the people of the State (literally the people of Al Dawla), they do not keep a promise or a treaty. They call to the truth but they are not its people. Their names are (nicknames like Abu Mohammed) and their last names (are the names of town and cities, like Al Halabi) and their hair is loose like women’s hair. (Leave them) until they fight among themselves, then Allah will bring the truth from whoever He wills.”
In another reference to a period of intense religious, political and social confusion Imam Ali  warned,
“If you are against a group of ‪Muslims and the kuffar (unbelievers) are against them too, then know that you have aligned yourself with the kuffar against your own brothers. And know that if that is the case, then there is definitely something wrong with your view. If you want to know where the most righteous of Muslims are then look to where the arrows of the kuffar are pointing.”
In this extract, Imam Ali clearly refers to a time when Muslims will cross swords with other Muslims while in alliance with non-Muslims. And because western powers are undeniably colluding with those radicals they claim to want to destroy - training them and funding them in plain view, one can legitimately ponder.
Looking at events currently unfolding in the Middle East such warnings have found a deep echo within the Muslim community and religious leaders, among whom most prominently Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both have mapped their decisions within such religious parameters. And whether one agrees with those men or not is not the point - understanding where they are coming from and where they stand however, is.
And if we can agree that not all is as it seems, then could it not be that those enemies we have imagined are indeed - not?
If ISIS has certainly been sold as an Islamic movement, everything it professes and teaches stands against Islam and its teachings. This divide actually goes beyond Islam’s great schism – which schism it needs to be noted remains part of this myth Saudi Arabia has been so eager on selling the world.
If indeed religious disagreements have occurred over the centuries and if Muslims have in truth fought and argue over the legitimacy, legality and religious superiority of their schools of thoughts and judicial principles, scholars did so in the knowledge and express belief that while men are flawed, Islam is perfect.
Islam’s disagreements came about out from a desire to walk better on God’s path, not to obliterate people with an implacable and merciless truth.
Looking back at the long line of prophets, from Adam to Noah, Ibrahim, Jesus, Yehia and Muhammad, all shared in the Oneness which is God’s ultimate command, God’s boundless mercy onto His creation and His injunction of peace. And if those holy messengers came at different times and places in our history, the essence of their message has been as permanent and immovable as God’s will. From Adam’s first cries of remorse and calls for forgiveness, to Prophet Muhammad’s last breath, God’s message onto us has always been Islam - as Islam means submission. In truth, the only real freedom which was ever given to us is that to submit, body and soul to The Creator of All things.
Islam did not start at Prophet Muhammad, rather it was reborn with him and through him; a last call before the sunset, a last mercy and guidance for us to follow – or not – a last ray of hope before evil can get its fill and the last chapter of our fate written down.
Islam was on the first day as it will be on the last day – it is us which have called it many things in our need to possess and label the divine. It is us again which have strayed and plotted, coveted and perverted to serve very earthly ambitions.
Wahhabism is no more than an engineered perversion, a division, an abomination which has but spread like a cancer onto the Islamic world and now threatens to destroy all religions.
Wahhabism and its legions: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, are but the manifestations of a reactionary atheist movement which seeks the death of all faiths.
Wahhabism is not of Islam and Islam will never be of Wahhabism – it is a folly to conceive that Islam would ever sanction murder, looting and atrocious barbarism. Islam opposes despotism, injustice, infamy , deceits, greed, extremism, asceticism – everything which is not balanced and good, fair and merciful, kind and compassionate.
If anything, Wahhabism is the very negation of Islam. As many have called it before – Islam is not Wahhabism. Wahhabism is merely the misguided expression of one man’s political ambition – Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, a man who was recruited by Empire Britain to erode at the fabric of Islam and crack the unity of its ummah (community).
As Wahhabism began its land and mind grab in Hijaz – now known as Saudi Arabia – one family, Al Saud saw in this violent and reactionary school of thought a grand opportunity to claim and retain power. This unholy alliance has blotted the skies of Arabia for centuries, darkening the horizon with its miasms.
Wahhabism has now given birth to a monstrous abomination – extreme radicalism; a beast which has sprung and fed from Salafis and Wahhabis poison, fueled by the billions of Al Saud’s petrodollars; a weapon exploited by neo-imperialists to justify military interventions in those wealthiest corners of the world.
But though those powers which thought themselves cunning by weaving a network of fear around the world to better assert and enslave are losing control over their brain-child, ISIS and its sisters in hate and fury, as they all have gone nuclear, no longer bound by the chains their fathers shackled them with.
ISIS’s obscene savagery epitomises the violence which is inherent and central to Wahhabism and Salafism - its other deviance. And though the world knows now the source of all terror, no power has yet dared speak against it, instead the world has chosen to hate its designated victim – Islam.
In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning ISIS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. But then again the Grand Mufti might remain oblivious to the history of Wahhabism or what Wahhabism actually professes.
Wahhabism 101
During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, governments were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given Muslims a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody is treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the ummah was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.
If 18th-century reformers were convinced that should Muslims ever regain lost power and prestige, they would have to return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order, Wahhabism would come to pervert such desires.
There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; not yet, rather, it was a grassroots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad.
Only, if the idea of going back to the root of Islam at a time when society had strayed from the path was indeed laudable, Wahhabism would work to betray such ideal by twisting on its head Islam’s most sacred pillars, perverting Islamic law and the interpretation of its Scriptures to serve the mighty and enslave the weak.
Under Wahhabism’s interpretation of Islam, women reverted to being objectified. Those many great women Islam saw rise under the strict protection of the Quran, those models Muslim women came to look up to and aspire to become – Maryam, Khadijah, Fatimah, Zaynab; Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab would have had locked up in chains in their home.
When Islam gave women their rightful place within society, Wahhabism denied them everything.
And for those of you who continue to live under the premise that Islam is profoundly unfair against women, do remember it is not Islam but rather men’s interpretations of it which is the source of your ire.
Islam secured women’ status according to God’s will. Islam poses both men and women on equal footing in terms of their faith – it is only in their duties and responsibilities which they differ, not worthiness. Islam calls on men to provide for women and offer them security, both financial and physical. Under Islam women are free to marry, divorce and work. Under Islam women cannot be bought, bartered or oppressed. Under Islam women enjoy more freedom than most western women have been given. It is society and cultural deviations which have denied them those rights, not Islam.
Women rights are forever imprinted in the Quran - this reality will never change, no matter how men chose to interpret it and falsify it.
Like Martin Luther, ibn Wahhab claimed he wanted to return to the earliest teachings of Islam and eject all later medieval accretions. To achieve such ambitions he opposed Sufism and Shia Islam, labelling them as heretical innovations (bidah) as both opposed tyranny in faith. He went on to urge all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (scholars) and interpret the texts for themselves, or rather under his guidance.
This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, ibn Wahhab found a patron in Mohammed Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. Ibn Saud quickly used Wahhabism to support his military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting such violence was all in the name of the greater good.
To this day Al Saud’s house is following in such bloody footsteps.
Although the scriptures were so central to ibn Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he distorted the Quranic message in the most violent way. The Quran firmly states that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” - Quran 2:256.
It rules that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Until Wahhabism came knocking, Muslims remained traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.
After ibn Wahhab’s death, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As Al Saud sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Hussain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children. A few years later,  in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader, wary of that his army would do to the population.
Little do we remember the sacking of the holy city of Medina, when Al Saud’s legions ransacked mosques, schools and homes. Al Saud’s army murdered hundreds of men, women and children, deaf to their screams. As imams pleaded for the most sacred relics of Islam to be protected, Al Saud’s men pillaged and looted, setting fire to Medina’s library. Al Saud made an example out of Medina, the very city which proved so welcoming to Islam. On the ground which saw rise the first mosque of Islam, Al Saud soaked the earth red with blood.
Where the footsteps of the last Prophet of God still echo, Al Saud filled the air with ghastly cries of horrors.
But such terror has been erased from history books. Such tales of blood and savage betrayals have been swallowed whole by Al Saud as this house attempted to re-write history and claim lineage to the house of the prophet.
Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.
In the Ikhwan we see the roots of ISIS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the Wahhabi-style jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.
In 1915, Abd Al-Aziz planned to conquer Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd Al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.
After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement.
But the Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, instead it gained new ground in the 1970s, when the Kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, in 1979 it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia Islam by Wahhabizing the entire Muslim world.
Just as Nasserism posed a threat to both the Saudis and the US in that it entailed independence and a supranational sense of belonging and solidarity, in opposition to colonialism and feudalism, Iran Shia democratic movement presented too much of a pull for countries in the region to follow to be allowed to shine forth.
And so the wheels of propaganda were set in motion and Iran became western powers and its allies’ designated enemy. Right alongside Soviet Russia, Iran became the source of all evil, while all the while Saudi Arabia was left to industrialize radicalism on a mass scale.
The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the U.S. to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the Kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam.
The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum.
Slowly Muslims’ understanding of Islam became polluted by Wahhabism and Sunni Muslims began to think and breath Wahhabism, no longer in tune with its own religious tradition, cut off from free-thinking Islam, moderate Islam, compassionate Islam and non-violent Islam.
At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.
Don't miss reading the second part: "ISIS: The brainchild of Wahhabism"


Saturday, April 08, 2017

Setianya ke Nerakajaya!

Image result for pak lebai
Dari parlimen ke kedai kopi
mimbar ke youtube
FB ke dalam kelambu
maki hamun
sumpah seranah
kafir mengkafir
bersilih ayat-ayat Quran
menjadi rutin harian
bangsa majoriti yang memerintah
berkuasa politik
sebagai budaya para pejuang
yang mahu memperkasakan
agama suci di bawah
perlembagaan sekular
mendaulatkan warisan penjajah
yang pecah dan perintah
atas nama demokrasi

Ramai penjaga pintu neraka
berhujah bersilat
memanggil musuh politik
dengan nama-nama jelek
babi, khadam, setan, biawak
seakan telah menghuni sorga
melontar fatwa
begitulah memperdagang agama
kerana dibelakang tirai
para politikus buncit gendut
bersongkok atau berserban
sama sahaja matlamat
tidur sebantal
liwat meliwat
sambil bermimpikan sorgajaya
demi survival
dan para pengikut
yang mati katak
setianya ke nerakajaya!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Ghana is 60: An African success story with tough challenges ahead

Ghana is 60: An African success story with tough challenges ahead

A member of Ghana’s navy attends celebrations in Accra to mark the country’s 60th independence anniversary. EPA/Christian Thompson
Black Africa’s first independent nation celebrated its 60th independence anniversary this week. A pioneer in many ways, Ghana was the first country in sub Saharan Africa to secure independence from Britain on March 6, 1957.
Ghana’s post-independence experience is also in many ways the African post-colonial story. President Kwame Nkrumah was a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union. He was also the most influential voice in the Pan-African movement in the early years of independence.
The Pan-Africanist flame burnt brightest at the height of agitation for independence, drawing in the likes of Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. But the Pan-Africanist rhetoric was soon extinguished as its leaders secured independence for their countries.
Ghana’s anniversary is well worth celebrating. Over the last six decades Ghana has transitioned from military dictatorships to a well functioning democracy while it’s economy has seen both boom and near bust. Its story offers both lessons and hope that Africa can fashion its own dignified path to peace and democracy.

The early decades

Nkrumah’s vision for Ghana was founded on the nationalist demands that drove agitation against colonialism. He sought to steer his young country to significant progress in health and education. Also on the new leader’s agenda were other social and economic issues confronting the country.
This vision was embedded in his seven-year development plan presented to parliament on March 11, 1964. In his view, the 1963-1970 plan would ultimately,
bring Ghana to the threshold of a modern state based on a highly organised and efficient agricultural and industrial programme.
Nkrumah believed he could completely obliterate the dependency-driven colonial economy he inherited which reduced Ghana to an importer of finished goods sold at exorbitant prices and exporter of raw materials bought cheaply. In its place would be an industrialised economy modelled along a socialist production and distribution system which would make Ghana self-sufficient and self-reliant.
But we will never know what all his success would have looked like. Nkrumah’s vision was cut short by a pro-western military coup in 1966. The planning of it was known to the US which considered Nkrumah a significant threat to its interests in Africa.
The acting special assistant for National Security Affairs R.W. Komer praised the coup as
…another example of a fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African.
Some 50 years after his overthrow, however, Nkrumah remains a household name in Ghana because of his investments in education, health and energy. Many of his contributions to other important sectors, such as the building of the Akosombo Dam, the Accra-Tema Motorway, the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, University of Cape Coast, continue to support the economy today.
Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966 was followed by four military takeovers in 1972, 1978, 1979 and 1981. Two democratically elected governments established in 1969 and 1979 were overthrown by the military. Eventually, the current succession of democratic elections was established in 1993.
In its early years Ghana’s flirtation with socialism dominated its politics. However, the civilian governments that followed steered the country onto a capitalist economic path in which the Bretton Woods institutions often dictated the pace.
But the country has been unable to achieve the envisioned self-reliant and self-sufficient economic policies. But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Democracy success story

Ghana has made remarkable progress as one of the success stories in Africa’s democratic project over the past 25 years. Political power has changed three times – all important milestones;
  • from the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) to the New Patriotic Party (NPP) in 2001;
  • from the ruling NPP to the NDC in 2009; and
  • from the ruling NDC back to the NPP in January, 2017.
With these three turnovers under the belt, Ghana’s democracy has met and exceeded Huntington’s “two turnover tests” thesis making Ghana a satisfactorily consolidated democracy.
Ghanaians have cast aside the authoritarian politics of the past. In its place is expanded political space which has helped to shape and broaden the frontiers of rights. Free speech and association is guaranteed, civil society organisations have greater influence over policy making and media is free to perform its gate-keeping.
It’s no coincidence that Ghana has emerged as one of the most peaceful nations on the globe. According to the 2016 Global Peace Index, Ghana – ranked 44th – is more peaceful than France – ranked 46th – and the United Kingdom – ranked 47th positions.

A nation in good health

Ghana has also made progress in numerous measures of well-being, especially poverty reduction and the provision of health and education is exemplary. It’s among the few countries around the world that have recorded significant reduction in poverty.
The health care scorecard is one of the most impressive in sub-Saharan Africa too. Ghana is one of the few countries with a universal health insurance scheme. And there’s a great deal to show from investments in the health sector. The country ranked 7th out of 153 countries on measles immunisation between 1990 and 2008, and while the regional average of measles vaccination rate stood at 75%, Ghana recorded 91%.
But many challenges remain.

Yo-yo economic growth

Economic growth has been swinging like a pendulum. Over a decade ago the country’s economy was growing at 7%, then roaring ahead with a growth rate of over 14% in 2011. Since then growth has declined considerably. In 2015 it expanded by just 4%.
Currently, Ghana is under an IMF bail-out programme because of its inability to contain its huge budget deficit, rising inflation and falling currency.
The jury is still out on whether the country can turn its economic fortunes around again. Unemployment rates are alarmingly high – at an estimated 48% – and the country faces a power crisis, high depreciation of the currency and high interest rates.
Nevertheless, Ghana is still very much the rising star in some spheres – just struggling in others like many of its African peers.

Monday, March 06, 2017

12 Life/Business Lessons From 12 years of Warren Buffett’s Annual Letters

12 Life/Business Lessons From 12 years of Warren Buffett’s Annual Letters

In 2015, when I sat down to read all of Warren Buffett's annual letters from the 10 years prior, the world was, shall we say, slightly less interesting. China was or was not in a slowdown, the US stock market was or was not in a bubble and the EU was or was not collapsing. The only thing you can add to those issues above, two years down the line, is that some countries are more, shall we say, nationalistic.
Warren Buffett released the most recent version of his annual letter a few days ago, and I felt it would be a good time to update my learnings by reading the 2015 and 2016 annual letters. So, here goes the (mostly) non-obvious business and life lessons from reading 12 years of Berkshire Hathaway letters to its shareholders.
  1. Enable the people around you and you’ll be amazed at how far they’ll take you (regardless of what the markets are doing): As much as the letters are about the numbers and how portfolio companies are doing, a lot of text is dedicated to the people behind the numbers. Warren Buffett (and Charlie Munger) have perfected the art of empowering the right people to achieve phenomenal outcomes. It’s unsurprising, it’s the foundation of the relationship between these long term friends. Most investors do not share anecdotes about the people who run their companies, anecdotes abound about Lorimer Davidson of GEICO, Ajit Jain, Tad Mantross, Ted Weschler, James Hambrick of Lubrizol, Frank Ptak of Marmon etc. Warren Buffett considers himself a contractor hired to help these business experts. With a mindset like this his people have no choice but to be inspired to achieve the great things they continue to achieve. The same will serve you and your teams/employee well…
  2. There is a lot to be said for instinct: this plays out again and again in the selection of the companies in the BRK portfolio. The fundamentals have to be sound, the leadership has to have integrity and the numbers have to make sense. In that order. In almost all of the letters is the statement ‘As much as Charlie and I talk about intrinsic business value, we cannot tell you precisely what that number is for Berkshire shares (nor, in fact, for any other stock).’ in talking about Intrinsic Business Value. For men who are as successful as Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger (if unconstrained by regulations) they could get away with throwing out numbers but it seems to always come back to what they believe. Sometimes numbers just can’t express what you know about value or put another way ‘you can know money but do you know value?’
  3. You cannot pay too much attention to company culture: This level of attention is obviously paid to BRK culture. When I first wrote the earlier version of this post in 2015, I wondered what Warren Buffett’s views were on Uber and the issues with company culture that the company had back then. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed. The 2010 letter quoted Churchill saying ‘You shape your houses and then they shape you.” Whether you choose to pay attention to it or not, your company has a culture.
  4. There is wisdom in strong opinions, weakly held: Until Warren Buffett met Charlie Munger he was making money (lots of it) ‘buying fair businesses at wonderful prices’ but Charlie got him to change his mind and focus on ‘buying wonderful businesses at fair prices’. Ponder that, when was the last time you changed your mind and stopped doing something that seemed to be working for you because someone gave you better advice? Might be time to change some things… Sidenote: On strong opinions I’d recommend you read the 2011 letter for why you might not want to be excited when the stock market rises.
  5. To succeed you must have conviction, be intentional and keep a firm eye on the long term. Multi-decades long. BRK made their first insurance investment, the purchase of National Indemnity for $8.6M, in 1967. Just the insurance portfolio made a whopping $2.7Bn in 2014 and National Indemnity has GAAP net worth of $111Bn. Another example; when everyone was running out away from mortgages in 2007–2008 BRK, through its Marmon investment, stuck by its blue collar mortgage owners and now owns 45% of the manufactured homes in the US with lower default rates than competitors who gave mortgages to higher income (but ‘fragile’) earners. That being said, Marmon lost money in 2016 (and will in 2017), but we’re thinking long term here. Paraphrasing Buffett ‘the fault is not in our stars, it’s in ourselves and our short term thinking about returns on investments’.
  6. Maintain a healthy disposition towards the attainment of wealth. Warren Buffett is a man of high aspiration, despite all he’s achieved. You can still sense this in the light hearted tone the annual letters take. Quoting ‘with the acquisition of Van Tuyl, BRK now owns 91⁄2 companies that would be listed on the Fortune 500 were they independent (Heinz is the 1⁄2). That leaves 4901⁄2 fish in the sea. Our lines are out.’ To fish in a sea of the largest companies in the world with the lightness of perspective shared in that line is a lesson in how to approach business; as a game. And as Buffett wisely states in the 2013 letter ‘Games are won by players who focus on the playing field (long term) — not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard (short term)’.
  7. To succeed you must have a ‘the-pie-is-growing-bigger’ positive perspective based on solid investigation of the long term direction of industries. This positive perspective, despite the negative rhetoric that some of our politicians are using to rally supporters behind them, is expressed in the following line ‘Though we will always invest abroad as well, the mother lode of opportunities runs through America. The treasures that have been uncovered up to now are dwarfed by those still untapped.’
  8. Always keep it simple and transparent. The letters are written in simple plain language. But the simplicity belies the complex nature of the concepts being discussed. It speaks to understanding the businesses at a level higher than most ‘experts’ out there. Sidenote : Simple is not the opposite of complex. This transparency comes from sharing the thinking behind decisions that most investors or shareholders would disagree with (e.g. BH does not issue dividends while earning dividends from its portfolio companies). It’s obviously paid off.
  9. Admit when you are wrong and learn from the mistakes: we are ego-driven animals but in all the letters Buffett talks about successes as well as failure with the same depth and lightness. In the 2014 letter Warren Buffett writes ‘A few, however, have very poor returns, the result of some serious mistakes I made in my job of capital allocation. I was not misled: I simply was wrong in my evaluation of the economic dynamics of the company or the industry in which it operates’ and about his investment in Energy Future Holdings in 2013 he writes ‘I didn’t ask Charlie. Notice Buffett could have done a few things in referencing these mistakes i) blame the bad decision on his team (like most horrible leaders do ii) brush off the bad judgement in light of all the other great things he’s shared in the letter. Instead, he shared the mistake and shared what he did wrong. You bet he won’t make those same mistakes again.
  10. Your most significant achievements do not have to be financial (despite what the values of some of the biggest firms seem to be: Considering the size of Berkshire Hathaway, it blows my mind that a statement like this would show up The most important development at Berkshire during 2015 was not financial, though it led to better earnings. After a poor performance in 2014, our BNSF railroad dramatically improved its service to customers last year’ in the 2015 letter. It’s a simple line that shows the crux of why Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are (and will be) known as two of the greatest investors ever; the focus is always on how well you can serve your customer. The money will follow.
  11. The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history and the diversity of those babies (despite the prevailing rhetoric) will be America’s strength for many years to come. A great quote from the 2016 newsletter, and is so apt for this moment in our history, is ‘Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers’.
  12. The final lesson is quite ironic and the most obvious lesson (to me anyway) and it’s that 12 years is not a long timeIt’s 4380 days and when put that way it feels even shorter. The business issues we are talking about now — markets going up and down, the pace of change increasing, old companies that don’t innovate die, what new leadership means for the country etc. — are the things we were talking about 12 years ago. 4 years will pass by pretty quickly.
Things change but things stay the same, we just find new ways to alarm ourselves about them…
While I do not agree with the BRK investments that are based on our utilization of unsustainable natural resources, I urge you to read the annual letters sometime or at least read some of Warren Buffett’s best quotes…there’s a lot of wisdom in those pages.
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