Nigeria Protests Crowd

Sport and Politics: do they go together?

Sport and Politics:
do they go together?

Social Media has long since become the most important mouthpiece for most people in public life, including athletes. The fact that political protests can also take place on these channels was demonstrated by many Nigerian athletes worldwide in October 2020



Capital: Abuja
Languages: around 500 spoken languages; English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are the official languages
Population: 214 million

Did you know?

It is not only since the Black Lives Matter protests in the North American professional basketball league NBA that athletes have had a great influence on their environment. There have  been protest actions throughout the 20th century. Even if this is often not seen favorably by employers, clubs or associations, there have always been „rebels of sport“. The forerunners of the Black Power Movement, which also arrived in sport, were two US sprinters at the 1968 Olympics. The US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested on the podium at the medal ceremony for the rights of the Black population.
Further examples of US athletes: While the political situation between the USA and Iran had been tense for about two decades, the United States national football team met  Iran during the World Cup in France. The USA and Iran made a significant statement before kick-off with a joint photo of both men’s national teams gathered arm in arm. The Americans were presented with white roses as a sign of peace. A silent protest took place in 1978 during the military dictatorship in Argentina. The World Champion coach César Luis Menotti was greeted by General Videla, whose military dictatorship claimed 30,000 Argentinian lives. He wants to congratulate the successful coach. Menotti refuses to shake hands and thus sends a signal of silent protest. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali also protests against the military, refusing his outstanding military service in Vietnam and thus partially losing his boxing licence and world championship title.

#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the killer of an African American youth from Florida. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a international organization in the US, UK and Canada whose goal is to eliminate white supremacy and strengthen the voice of Black people in their respective countries. #BlackLivesMatter aims to intervene in the violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and its law enforcers. By combating and countering acts of violence, improvement in the lives of many Black people in the US, Canada and the UK, as well as globally, should happen. Black populations of various societies should be brought into focus through the protest movement. Due to the violent murder of the US American George Floyd by a police officer, the movement received a lot of media and social attention worldwide in 2020, as a result of which many people in the USA took to the streets to demonstrate. Elsewhere, whether in Germany or other parts of Europe, Black minorities also took to the streets.1

The Black Power Movement, on the other hand, had its origins decades earlier in Martin Luther King, among others. Led by him, African Americans in the USA protested against racial segregation and racism in the 1960s. The raised fist became one of the symbols of the resulting Black Power Movement.2,3

Protests in Nigeria: What are the reasons?

Not directly against the military, but against the emerging police violence in his home country, Nigerian Odion Jude Ighalo protested and thus drew the attention of the European football world to what was happening there in October 2020. The Manchester United player posted a moving video on Twitter after his team’s 2-1 win over Paris Saint Germain (see below) in which he takes a clear stand against government violence. The video was taken on the pitch immediately after the final whistle.
What happened in Nigeria?

The desperation of the people in Nigeria turned into anger, particularly in response  to a video that circulated on social media. Police officers of a so-called SARS unit shoot a young man, allegedly trying to get to his car. SARS stands for Special Anti-Robbery Squad and is a special unit of the Nigerian police that operates nationwide. It gained notoriety among the population mainly for violence, corruption and criminality. Extortion, including demands for ransom from the families of those arrested, as well as murders if payment was not made, became public. As a result, people have been taking  to the streets all over Nigeria since 8 October 2020. Their demand was clearly stated with the hashtag #EndSARS circulating on various social media channels. Riots and the shooting of several demonstrators by the police were accepted. The president promised a response a few days later after shops were looted and a prison, police stations, courthouses and TV stations were set on fire.4
Nigeria Protests Crowd
Protesters against the Nigerian Police Service SARS. © Ayanfe Olarinde / Unsplash
In a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city with 14 million inhabitants, at least 10 more people were killed on 20 October. President Muhammadu Buhari disbanded the special forces  in the wake of the protests. He announced at the end of October that 51 civilians, 11 police officers and 7 soldiers had died in the unrest. The president’s rhetoric, however, remains critical: although he announced that the 11 policemen and 7 soldiers had been killed by demonstrators, he did not mention who was responsible for the other 51 deaths. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and 40 other human rights groups demanded a comprehensive investigation into the police violence in October. The UN and the EU have also been critical of the brutal treatment of demonstrators by the security forces.5
Internationally, the police actions against the protesters were sharply criticised, which is why the president felt compelled to issue a warning. While thanking the neighbours and the members of the international community, he warns not to draw hasty conclusions or issue premature condemnations . Criticism also remains because although SARS was disbanded on 11 October, the creation of a new special unit called SWAT, Special Weapons and Tactics, was announced shortly afterwards. The suspicious that SARS has only been renamed, but the machinations remain the same, seems to be  legitimate.6
Nigeria Protests Socialmedia
Ongoing Protest to End Sars Brutality in Nigeria. © Tobi Oshinnaike / Unsplash

Voices of top athletes in football Europe

I’m not the kind of guy who talks about politics, but I can’t keep quiet anymore about what is going on back home in Nigeria. I would say the Nigerian government: you are a shame to the world for killing your own citizens, sending military to the streets to kill unarmed protesters. […] I’m ashamed of this government. We are tired of you […] and we can’t take it […]

Odion Jude Ighalo

These were the words of 31-year-old Odion Jude Ighalo in the video he shared on Twitter. The one-and-a-half minute video, titled „Pray for Nigeria“, has since been shared over 170,000 times and has over four million views (as of 20.12.2020).7
But Ighalo was not the only athlete to take a stand. 
Other Nigerian footballers, such as the €70 million summer signing Victor Osimhen, who has been playing for SSC Napoli since September 2020, spoke out against police brutality in the West African country. The latter sent a supportive message via a jersey inscription displayed in the stadium after he scored. The inscription read: „EndPoliceBrutality in Nigeria“. Other Nigerian internationals such as Everton FC’s Alex Iwobi, the currently unattached but two-time 2018 World Cup goal scorer Ahmed Musa and Spartak Moscow’s Victor Moses also came out in support of the #EndSARS protests.8
Not only men, but also women of European top clubs expressed their views. Asisat Oshoala, a player for FC Barcelona, was one of them:

Pan-Africanism from the USA

The Nigerian, pan-African diaspora9 is not only evident in football Europe. Many US-American Nigerian athletes are reaching out to their community on Instagram and Twitter. Chiney Ogwumike, a professional basketball player in the USA, showed her support on Instagram via a video message,  regarding the events of the Black Lives Matter movements originating in the USA: “What people don’t realize is that we are connected now more than ever before. We are finally realizing that we are more alike than we are different. […] Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So right now, I am sending prayers and strength to Nigeria. Keep making your voices heard. We are with you.”10

What is diaspora?
Another message came from another US athlete of Nigerian origin. Mixed martial arts champion Kamaru Usman, for example, called for a presidential response: „What I’m seeing — all the killings that are taking place, all the destruction that’s taking place. We’ve been set back a long long time, but this has set us back even further. And you can be the one to step in and bring this to a halt. But for some reason, silence has gone on long enough. Buhari, you need to step up. The government needs to step up and they need to change. They need to change that country.”11
A similar message, the same goal, also a martial artist, also from Nigeria, is Anthony Joshua, who, like Usman, posted a video message on Twitter (see below). He emphasized the bond with his compatriots and spoke words of encouragement to them. Prominent professional basketball players from the North American Basketball League, Victor Oladipo and Bam Adebayo, as well as former American football player Emmanuel Acho also showed their reactions on Instagram and Twitter respectively.12

Sport and Politics - does that go together?

Nigerian international and midfielder John Ogu has called on his teammates in the Nigerian football team to boycott their upcoming matches in protest against the government following reports of the massacre of Nigerian protesters at the toll booth in Lekki, a suburb of Lagos. In an interview with BBC World Service Radio’s World Football programme, Ogu said:13
What is the point in representing the country if this is what the politicians, the people we are representing can do to us? […] I feel like this is the best thing to do right now until they get back to their senses and listen to us.

John Ogu

John Ogu, who was in Lagos in October after leaving the Saudi Arabian club Al-Adalah in September, was also actively involved in the protests, in which he participated about six to seven times.
He asks the question that many athletes can and may ask themselves in times like these: What is the point of representing the country at home and abroad if those being represented do not stand for what athletes should stand for? Unity, justice, team spirit and peace. Whether an Olympic athlete, a professional basketball player, a national goalkeeper, a former national football team captain, a national basketball player: What purpose does sport offer – apart from the much-discussed commercialism – if athletes must justify themselves before they become political? For example, a visibly moved athlete like Odion Ighalo: “I’m not the kind of guy who talks about politics, but I can’t keep quiet anymore about what is going on back home in Nigeria.“7 The words show one thing above all: the difficulties athletes face when they take a stand on political issues. Whether it’s advertising deals, sponsorship contracts or club searches, many things can be made more difficult by personal statements that cause unrest.14
However, the sooner these political voices become the norm, especially in light of this eventful year in terms of sports policy 2020, the higher the acceptance will be and the stronger the social added value of sport. Match cancellations due to striking players , kneeling players with raised fists in almost the entire sporting world between America and Europe, or socio-critical discussions in and about professional football during the Corona outbreak could bring transformation to the political influence of athletes Hopefully in the future, athletes who raise their voices will no longer be isolated cases. With four million views for the published video of a single athlete, at least one thing is already true: the reach.


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  10. Yahoo Sports, Owens: Athletes plead for an end to Nigerian police brutality via #EndSARS campaign (22.10.2020), retrieved from Last accessed on 19.12.2020.
  11. Twitter, Kamaru Usman: „We need you now more than ever President Buhari“, retrieved from
  12. Africans In Sports, Aluko: Nigerian Athletes React To The Lekki Massacre In Lekki Nigeria (26.10.2020), retrieved from Last accessed on 19.12.2020.
  13. BBC: End Wars protests: Midfielder John Ogu calls for Nigeria team boycott, retrieved from Last accessed on 19.12.2020.
  14. Deutsche Welle, Krepela: Wenn sich Sportler zur Politik äußern (14.10.2019), retrieved from Last accessed on 19.12.2020.

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