Dec 27, 2019

The Global Surge Of Populist Protests In 2019: A Review | Michael Orekoya


In Hong Kong, protesters have adopted Bruce Lee’s famous quote, “Be formless, shapeless, like water” as their guiding strategy in protesting a proposed law permitting the extradition of criminal suspects to China.[1] The non-hierarchical nature of these protests has given the government a hard time suppressing them as they hold spontaneously and simultaneously in different locations. In Catalonia, sequel to the Spanish Supreme Court’s judgment, jailing nine Catalonian separatist leaders, thousands of people have matched to the streets demanding “justice”. 

In Lebanon taxes imposed on What’sApp voice call, tobacco and petrol have prompted protests and led to the resignation of the prime minister. In Algeria on the other hand, mass protests have been happening almost throughout the year sequel to ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fifth term, these protests eventually prompted him to resign. In France, the gilets jaunes or yellow vest protests that began last year were sparked off by a rise in petroleum taxes. While in Chile it was a hike in bus fares that got people into the streets. In Iran an increase in fuel price and economic hardship have sparked up populist protests. In neighboring Iraq thousands of protesters have blocked public facilities in a bid to demand the appointment of an independent prime minister.

Like we have not seen it all, Todd Philip’s controversial movie, The Joker, was released in August, portraying the chronicles of a mentally ill loner who eventually became a symbol of a leaderless resistance against the wealthy elite after he murdered three investment bankers. Julie Norman of University of London described 2019 as a historically notable year of protest because of the “degree of mobilization.”[2] Mass populist protests have broken out all around the world in 2019, they however share a common characteristic, they are usually leaderless; they were products of social media awareness and advocacy rather than sentiments stirred up by populist demagogues.


Populism means different things to different people; it is from the Latin word populus meaning, “Of the people”. The word was first used by the American Populist Party in 1891. The party was a union of farmers, union leaders and workers organizations. They agitated for the recognition of labour unions, regulation of the rail road industry, a progressive income tax, women suffrage and direct election of senators; the word populism was used to describe the promotion of democracy in the late 19th century. Some historians have described populism as a popular engagement of the population in political decision making. Ernesto Laclau, renowned Argentine political theorist, described populism as an emancipatory social force through which marginalized groups challenge dominant power structures. Today the term has been used negatively to refer to political demagogues who present over simplistic answers, illogic arguments and sometimes lies to complex sociopolitical questions, promising to shake up “the establishment” in a bid to gather popular support from the people. This explains why populist leaders are often viewed with suspicion and the term is derogatorily used to describe politicians who promise radical change or make promises that on closer look may not be feasible. The populist leader claims to represent the unified will of the people. He stands in opposition to an enemy, often embodied by the current system, aiming to take down the ruling elite. Populism is not necessarily a good or bad ideology as both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill could be described as populists as they appealed to and addressed the growing frustrations of their people.


In talking about the rise of populism it is pertinent also to talk about the rise of 21st century populist demagogues, particularly in Europe. Populist demagogues are notorious opportunists that claim to represent the interests of the average or working class citizens and also claim to unite the population against a common enemy. Populist demagogues appeal to the people, their fears, anxieties, and dreams of a better world. The common enemy often varies depending on the political spectrum of the politician. During his campaign, Donald Trump depicted immigrants and the Republican establishment as the common enemy, while Bernie Sanders constantly refer to Wall Street’s billionaires as the enemy of the people.[3] They are often charismatic as they are successful at galvanizing the masses. These populist demagogues have gained momentum throughout Europe and South America in recent years, convincing the people that socialist or left leaning policies negate the collective will of the people. Populist demagogues choose a popular enemy like the establishment, immigration or corruption and rally voters to get behind that cause, sometimes this has led to popular movements and legal reforms, other times it has snowballed into wide spread ultra-nationalism and nativism. Donald Trump, while campaigning made a populist appeal to the economic and social insecurity of many Americans, portraying his political opponents and the media as the elite and employing a nativist and divisive tone.[4] Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was overwhelmingly reelected for a third term after he has over the years presented himself as anti-immigrants and anti European Union, employing populist rhetoric to play upon the fears of the people. He once told Hungarian media that: “We will never allow Hungary to become a target country for immigrants. We want to keep Hungary as Hungary.”[5] By equating migrants with terrorists, Orban offered an oversimplified answer to complex sociopolitical questions.

There are three core character traits of populist demagogues.

·         They make an appeal to the people, championing their cause against the despised elite.

·         They use crisis or manufacture crisis to justify their cause to revolt against the ‘establishment.’

·         They use inflammatory language when addressing opposition.

Because populists make up big and simplistic promises to shake up the society and overthrow the establishment, they often seek to bypass democratic checks and balances, particularly the judiciary and the media. They then tag these institutions as elite conspiracies to block the will of the people.[6] Politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson preyed on the nativism of British voters concerned about increased immigration and manipulated these sentiments against the EU.  They capitalized on British dissatisfaction with the status quo and helped turned the Brexit referendum into a catch-all protest vote against everything that was wrong in the country. In France, Marine Le Pen uses populist rhetoric to oppose and blame the EU for mass immigration.[7] Some of her supporters include anti-Semitic abuse in their angry campaign. 

Africa has had and continues to have its fair share of populist demagogues. The end of colonialism in Africa in the 60s led to the emergence of a handful of nationalist leaders without intellectual depth or character to handle the challenges of modern governance. They rather capitalized on the fears and emotions of their people, positioned themselves as strong men objecting western ideals. They emphasized nationalism and often used xenophobia to consolidate political power. The likes of late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan are notable examples. In 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari rode on a populist rhetoric and promised to bring change, he portrayed himself as an “enemy of the corruption”, promising to take down the establishment that had held the country down for fifteen years. He provided simplistic answers to intricate and complex economic and policy questions, playing the “us” versus “them” card.


The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, which blamed corporations and the rich for creating economic instability for the rest of the country, was a protest against political corruption and wealth inequality in the U.S and was a major demonstration of distrust in the established political order.[8] Some have blamed the rise of populism in Europe and the United States on the failure of the neo liberal economic model and the collapse of traditional political structures that were less global and multi ethnic. This grievance has been channeled into wide support for populist demagogues in the U.S, the U.S, France, Italy and several other countries. This is evident in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. By voting to leave  the EU,  the Brits demonstrated that the unification of Europe was at the expense of their survival as a people , a rhetoric that Trump’s  campaign employed  by calling for the U.S to pull back from  its commitments around the world and to focus on “America first.”   These populist demagogues scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise and not even Germany, Europe’s largest economy, looks stable. It has felt the backlash of slow economic growth and mass migration across Europe. A poll in November showed that 42% of Germans want a referendum on E.U membership.[9] According to Norbert Roettgen, a senior lawyer in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, there is a re-emergence of state egotism and Nationalism. In Europe voters are generally frustrated with the political establishment, they have concerns about globalization. In France the anti-establishment protests over the cost of living have posed the biggest challenges to Macron’s presidency.


Despite the negatives associated with populism today, it is important to note that “leaderless” populist protests in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe have been responsible for key democratic reforms and regime change. These movements do not appeal to specific categories, they appeal to the entirety of the citizenry who feel defrauded by the political class. End-to-end encryption and online anonymity have played huge roles in fuelling these protests. Instant messaging and social media have proven really useful in getting people who share the same views together.[10]  Technology has abated “leaderlessness” in an unprecedented manner. Technology means that you do not need a leader to disseminate strategy, the strategy disseminates horizontally. Messaging apps like Telegram that offer end-to-end encryption have been used, Twitter and Facebook have also enabled horizontal and decentralized protest movements.

“Our revolution did not have a head but it did have a body, a heart and a soul,” an Egyptian protester told Reuters.[11]

These protests have been sparked by several common factors like:

Economic Inequality and a high cost of living: Governments are adopting austere measures that have not been well received by a huge fragment of the citizenry. In Ecuador for example, the government’s decision to stop fuel subsidy has sparked massive protests. The government eventually suspended its fuel hike but the protests continued, tackling wider social issues.

Political Freedom: The protests in Hong Kong are results of the growing need of a people to be politically free. Young people have taken to the street en masse. While the proposed extradition bill has been dropped, the protests have evolved into a wider call, demanding that China recognizes Hong Kong’s autonomy. In Algeria protests demanding political freedom from the ruling elite eventually led to the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s, the same can be said of the protests in Sudan that eventually ousted Al-Bashir and in Catalonia against the Spanish government.

Corruption: In Egypt viral videos revealing high level of corruption and abuse of public funds in the Egyptian army sparked series of protests and agitations.  In Lebanon for example, the failure of the government to provide basic socioeconomic benefits have been blamed on corruption and has resulted in a popular demand for government resignation. The protesters argue that while austere measures are imposed on citizens, the political leaders are enriching themselves. The government eventually approved a wide range of reforms including slashing the salaries of politicians.

Social media enables a movement in one place to take inspiration from protests in other places. In Sudan, for example, protests over rising bread prices quickly spread to other small towns before eventually reaching the capital Khartoum. For four months protesters stood their ground against the oppressive regime, government violent crackdown on protesters eventually left over 50 people dead and scores injured and jailed. With the unrelenting tenacity of the people, Al-Bashir was ousted. The protests in Barcelona against the Spanish government adopted the tactics and strategies used by protesters in Hong Kong and videos of Hong Kong protesters carrying the Catalan flag have circulated on social media.

In Hong Kong demonstrations are largely leaderless and decentralized as activists, to avoid being targets of China’s sophisticated surveillance system, coordinate and mobilize anonymously on social media. Display pictures are shared on Telegram group chats to thousands who print them and post them in public places. Apple’s Airdrop function has also been used at points of protest, to disseminate information instantly. Also the protests in Catalonia have been partly coordinated by an anonymous online platform known as Tsunami Democratic. Tsunami Democratic has used Twitter and Telegram to instruct activists on where to protest.

In Lebanon, people across religious inclinations, in towns and villages across the country have staged leaderless populist protests chanting: “All Means All”, demanding the ousting of all political leaders. Protesters have used hash tags to mobilize themselves, spread news and share memes, videos, opinions and sarcasm targeting politicians.

It is however important to note that these leaderless protests come with their challenges and difficulties. Oftentimes the leaderless nature of these populist protests make it difficult to negotiate as different protest groups may incoherently make different or contradictory demands. For example in Chile, protests have evolved from demanding reversal in the hike of bus fares to multifarious demands like pensions, government corruption and student loan. This has made it difficult for government to provide an all-encompassing solution and often times they have no idea whom to negotiate with.

 There is also a tendency that demonstrations will degenerate into violent clashes with the police as it is in Hong Kong, Chile and Iraq, making governments justify forceful crackdown on protests. Demonstrations in Algeria and Russia, though leaderless, have however remained peaceful. But the truth remains that, without some form of command structure and organization, leaderless protests might be outmaneuvered by governments, hence there is a need to build coherent leadership structures or form alliances with existing organizations making similar demands.


It must be said that since the mid-90s the voices of populist protests have been muffled in Nigeria. As the country’s streets and campuses have not felt the reverberating effects of protests the likes that occurred in the 90s where a coalition of student activists, labour leaders, academics, civil societies, and professional organizations staged powerful populist protests that requested the removal of despotic military regimes. The Occupy Nigeria protests of 2012, like the protests in Hong Kong, Chile and Algeria were largely mobilized by young people, a generation that has come to see social media as its primary means of activism. However one of the major reasons for the crumble of the protests was the lack of a central command structure as the central labour unions (the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress) that were initially entrusted to lead the protests made certain unpopular concessions and caved in to accusations by government that they had plans to overthrow the regime.[12]

It goes without saying that the Nigerian political elites have a strong aversion to populist protests that seek to demand basic dividends of democracy. This is obvious from the violent crackdown on Shiite protesters demanding the release, from unlawful detention, of their leader to the violent response of security operatives to “Revolution Now” protesters. They are ever ready to tag peaceful protests as attempts to overthrow the government and threats to national security. The government is ever willing to make scapegoats of these movements. It is however important to note that a “democratic” regime that furiously clamps down on peaceful protests has climbed down the abyss of despotism and should respectfully rescind the tag “democratic”.


There is a global political awakening and this awakening has been amplified by the digital information age with more than half of the planet connected to the internet. Facebook accounts for more than 2.4 billion users while Twitter has over 300 million users, this has enabled more people to be exposed to torrential and ceaseless news updates, this is not to ignore the fact that some of this information is false and over sensationalized. Social media has also made it possible for people to connect locally and globally, therefore drawing comparison and inspiration from protests and revolts across the world. These protests are however not ends in themselves, they are means to an end as the angst on the streets should eventually lead into dialogue and sociopolitical reforms. Governments should exact efforts into addressing legitimate grievances and harness youth political participation to the ends of nation building. Meaningful proposals should be made to revamp failed systems while the agitations of the protesters should eventually culminate into dialogue and participation in electoral politics only when the ruling elites have demonstrated genuine intentions of creating change by establishing independent institutions to chart lasting paths of accountability and good governance.

[1] South China Morning Post, Be Water, my friend: Hong Kong protesters take Bruce Lee’s wise saying to heart and go with the flow, 20 December 2019

[2] Wikipedia, Protests of 2019, 25 December2019,

[3] The New York Times, How can Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Both Be Populists?, 27 March 2016,

[4] The Washington Post, Donald Trump is American democracy’s worst nightmare come true, 26 July 2019,

[5] BBC News, The man who thinks Europe has been invaded, 6 April 2018,

[6] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, The Populist Harm to Democracy: An Empirical Assessment, 26 December 2018,

[7] EUnews, Interview with Marine Le Pen: ‘I Don’t Want this European Soviet Union’ 4 June 2016,

[8] The Telegraph, Occupy Wall Street Protest Spread, 6 October 2011,

[9] Express, GEREXIT? Merkel in Meltdown as nearly Half of Germans want EU referendum, poll find, 30 November, 2016,

[10] abcNews, How tech has fueled a ‘leaderless protest’ in Hong Kong, 12 October 2019,

[11][11] Reuters, Analysis: Do “leaderless” revolts contain seeds of own failure? 24 June 2011,

[12] BBC News, Nigerian Fuel Subsidy: Strike Suspended, 16 January 2012,