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”. 

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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. 

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.


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.


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]

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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]

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”.


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.

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

Wikipedia, Protests of 2019, 25 December2019,

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

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,

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

The Telegraph, Occupy Wall Street Protest Spread, 6 October 2011,

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

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

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

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