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20 surprising people who shook the world in 2016

  • 30 Dec 2016

A murderer, a venture capitalist out for vengeance, outspoken politicians, a president's daughter, a Kashmiri rebel and a rapper refusing to play by music industry rules... these are the men and women who forced the world to take notice in 2016.

From Bana Alabed to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Burhan Wani, we look at the people who rose most unexpectedly to prominence in 2016.

Ivanka Trump

When her father, the US president-elect, met with Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, Ivanka Trump was there. When the elder Trump spoke with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, he ended the conversation by handing the phone to Ivanka. When Al Gore went to Trump Tower, the former Vice President and noted climate change activist first met with Ivanka, before sitting down with her father.

The 35-year-old was equally omnipresent during her father's election campaign. At the Republican National Convention in June, it was Ivanka who made the biggest impact. Standing confidently at the podium, the University of Pennsylvania grad weaved a tale of her father as a "people's champion" who would stand up for "policies that allow women with children to thrive."

It was a remarkable show, but it wouldn't last.

By the time her father came under attack for a 2005 tape where he implied that he forced himself on women, Ivanka's image as Donald's most level-headed surrogate came under question. Activists and analysts wondered why she didn't do more to disavow her billionaire father's misogynistic comments about women.

But, like her father's election campaign, Ivanka managed to outlast the criticisms thrown at her.

Though anti-nepotism regulations will bar the 35-year-old from a seat in her father's cabinet, Ivanka is set to become one of the most powerful First Daughters ever when Donald will officially be sworn in as President of the United States on January 20, 2017.

Adama Barrow

For 22 years, Gambia had been run by one man, Yahya Jammeh. Throughout those two decades, he managed to win four elections since coming to power as part of a 1994 military coup. Though the results went largely uncontested, the fairness of those four ballots has come under question.

Then, in a year full of shock polls, Gambia's December 2 presidential ballots ended in another unexpected outcome — the defeat of Jammeh by Adama Barrow, a property developer who had never previously held political office.

In the weeks since the polls, Barrow has found himself at the centre of a political tug-of-war. Jammeh first conceded defeat and then rescinded his concession by alleging that there were "serious abnormalities" in the results.

No matter what happens in January, when the transition of power is slated to take place, Barrow has already presented a blow to one of the African continent's longest-serving and most controversial leaders.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders was for decades an independent politician on the fringes of US politics. He became the only self-described Socialist in the US House of Representatives in 1991. Not an easy feat in a country where socialism has long been a political taboo. He occasionally made headlines, namely for his vocal opposition to the 2003 occupation of Iraq, but was far from being a household name.

So when he launched a presidential campaign in May last year, few commentators took the senator for Vermont — a "fly-over state" and one of the smallest in the union — very seriously. Most predicted heavyweight Hillary Clinton would have an easy victory in the 2016 primaries for the Democratic nomination against the longtime independent.

Yet by late January 2016, the Sanders campaign had received support from some 3.25 million donors — $20 million in that month alone. Ultimately, Clinton won the primaries taking 34 states, but the fact that Sanders was able to win a competitive 23 came as a surprise to many in the party hierarchy.

And even after he bowed out and finally endorsed Clinton in July 2016, the 75-year-old junior senator did the seemingly unthinkable by offering young people in the US an alternative to the stalwarts of the two-party system.

Boris Johnson

Johnson started the year as the mayor of London, but he would end it as Foreign Secretary of Britain. Along the way, he would make a decision that would forever change the course of his life and the future of the European Union.

By February, Johnson, then still the London Mayor, put his weight behind a campaign calling for Britain to break with the European Union, the so-called Brexit. It was a blow to the unity of the Conservatives as Johnson chose to break with the party's leader, then Prime Minister David Cameron, and become the driving force behind the "leave" campaign.

When Brits went to the polls on June 23 to vote on the referendum, 53.4 percent of voters chose to leave the bloc. Johnson took the vote, an unexpected outcome by many standards, as an unmitigated triumph.

After Cameron's resignation, within hours of the vote, Johnson, still reeling from his triumph, was seen by many as the likely successor. In the end, he withdrew his name from the candidate pool to replace Cameron, becoming the new Foreign Secretary instead.

Colin Kaepernik

When he refused to stand for the US national anthem before American gridiron matches, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback caused a firestorm of controversy.

Asked why he chose to kneel during the US national anthem, the 29-year-old replied: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour … To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Kaepernick's kneel was meant as a statement against charges of pervasive police brutality, racial profiling and inequality in the United States, and came as the Black Lives Matter movement was continuing across the US.

It was a bold move in an age where professional athletes rarely dare to put their multi-million dollar endorsement deals at risk by making such political statements. The backlash to Kaepernick's protest was swift and varied. Some accused him of being anti-military, while others burned replicas of his jersey. But Kaepernick was unfazed in his effort to show that even a multi-billion dollar industry like the National Football League cannot be separated from politics.

In the year when the world lost Muhammad Ali, it took a 29-year-old quarterback who sat out most of the season to remind us that sports and politics do not have to be separated.

Bana Alabed

Bana Alabed was barely two years old when the protests in her country began, but this year she simultaneously became one of the faces of the humanitarian disaster that the Syrian war has become, and one of the most-watched documenters of the tragedy.

Throughout 2016, the seven-year-old (with help from her mother) offered a glimpse of life under siege in Syria. For her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, Alabed and her family offered a first-hand look at the human toll of what has become a proxy war for some of the world's most powerful countries.

In December, when Aleppo, the last major city still under rebel control, fell to the forces of Bashar al Assad, thousands of people waited to see what became of the little girl from Syria. When she reached Turkey, Alabed was welcomed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

Standing Rock Sioux

In April, a small band of people from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched a movement against a multimillion dollar oil pipeline that was cutting through their sacred lands.

As the months progressed, thousands of people — both within the US indigenous population, and others — joined in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The water protectors, as the demonstrators gathered along the banks of the Missouri River came to be known, even attracted hundreds of US military veterans.

What began as a simple encampment had ballooned into a movement that had gained worldwide support and caught the attention of the international media. Then, in December, the Obama administration delivered the protesters a major victory when the Army Corps of Engineers said they will not grant the permit for the pipeline to drill under the river.

Yet the tribe faces further uncertainty in 2017. The company in charge of the construction said it won't back down, and there's also the question of whether the incoming Trump administration will uphold that decision.

Chance the Rapper

Long before the world knew him as Chance the Rapper, a teenager called Chancelor Johnathan Bennett told President Barack Obama he was a rapper. At the time, the president — who had been a long-time fan of Jay-Z and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West — brushed the comment off as youthful boasting.

A decade later, Johnathan returned to the White House, this time as a Grammy-nominated, critically-acclaimed rapper who had become a favourite of the Obamas.

At 23, Chance has managed to challenge music industry norms — he refuses to sign with a major label or sell his music — while winning the endorsement of his idols, including West, whose 2004 debut, The College Dropout, launched Bennett's love affair with Hip Hop.

Chance's gamble of not signing with a record label, referenced in the opening lines of his single, No Problem, has paid off.

Rather than spending years battling a label for compensation and creative control — a fight the likes of Prince, George Michael and Kesha spent years mired in — Chance chose to focus on touring and merchandising for his revenue.

This year, Chance made history when his mixtape, The Coloring Book, debuted at number eight on the Billboard album charts.

It was the first time a streaming-only album managed to break into the Billboard 200. The Coloring Book would once again make history when he became the first artist to have a streaming only Grammy-nominated album.

Oh, and he's not up for just one award, including his appearances on West's Life of Pablo, he is nominated for seven awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album.

No problem, indeed.

The Turkish people

The hours between the 15 and 16 of July were fraught with uncertainty in Turkey, as groups of rogue soldiers attempted to launch a military coup against the democratically-elected government.

But, by the early morning hours of the 16th, confusion had turned to triumph as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in an act of sheer defiance to yet another military putsch in their country.

Young and old, men and women, took to the streets, roundabouts and bridges shouting "Ya'allah, Bism'illah, Allahu Akbar" and waving Turkish flags.

It was a remarkable display of people power that saw supporters and critics of the government join together to oppose yet another attempt by the military to take over the country. There may have been more than 200 martyrs — including alleged coup plotters — but the night will be just as remembered for the people who literally stood up to tanks.

The "Alt-Right"

For those in the movement, the term "Alt-Right" is simply an abbreviation of "alternative right," meaning people with right-wing political views who reject the conservative establishment in the United States.

But to many people, the term is a euphemism, an easily meme-able rebranding of far-right white nationalism. The movement has many leaders, all of whom came to national prominence when they began supporting the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

In November, Richard Spencer, the man credited with creating the term "Alt-Right," ended a speech in Washington, DC, with a proclamation of: "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" The audience raised their arms in a Nazi-style salute. Then there is Milo Yiannopoulos, a 31-year-old tech editor at the conservative Breitbart News website.

Though Yiannopoulos says he isn't actually part of the movement, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks hate groups in the US, describes him as: "The person who propelled the alt-right movement into the mainstream."

At the Republican National Convention in July, Yiannopoulos held an event in Cleveland, Ohio called "Gays for Trump," the party was reported to be full of anti-Muslim speeches. Spencer was also in attendance.

Trump's critics accuse his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" and his rhetoric — including a proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, characterising Mexican immigrants in the US as criminals and "rapists" who are "bringing drugs," and saying he would make Mexico pay for a massive wall along the border — of enlivening white nationalists, including the so-called "Alt-Right."

When Trump won the presidential election in November, it was seen by some as a disturbing victory for white nationalists. Despite trying to distance himself from the white nationalist movement, Trump went on to appoint Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist and senior counselor. In July, Bannon said Breitbart was: "The platform for the alt-right."

Ibtihaj Muhammad

Ibtihaj Muhammad didn't secure a medal at the Rio Olympics, but she made history nonetheless as the first Muslim-American athlete to compete for Team USA in a hijab.

Coverage of the US team may have been dominated by a pair of male swimmers — Michael Phelps' securing his title as the most-decorated Olympian in history, with 28 medals, and Ryan Lochte securing his title as an undeniable jackass for lying about a non-existent robbery — but in an age where the man who would become the US President-elect can call for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, Muhammad's graceful presence was a blow to Islamophobes the world over.

Recognising this, Muhammad said: "I feel like this moment, representing my country and the Muslim community, it's bigger than myself."

The fact that Muhammad's presence came the same year that Kimia Alizadeh Zenoozi became the first Iranian female athlete to win a medal at the Olympics, only furthered the blow to Islamophobes.

Burhan Wani

A hero to Kashmiri people but a "terrorist" in the eyes of the Indian state, Burhan Wani was a 21-year-old insurgent in Indian-administered Kashmir.

He amplified his voice using social media, uploading videos and photos with messages calling for Kashmir to break away from Indian rule. Although his gun-weilding presence was symbolic, a war of images against India's continuing aggression in Kashmir, where about half a million of its troops are stationed to quell dissent. His call of freedom inspired tens of thousands of Kashmiri youth.

But the police shot him dead in July, and the killing sparked a massive anti-India agitation across Kashmir that continued for the next five months. Today, Kashmiris sing songs of Wani's valour.

Peter Thiel

The billionaire venture capitalist began 2016 as the ultimate outlier in Silicon Valley.

Not only did he fund the legal case that brought down Gawker.com, one of the most-read and quoted websites on the Internet, but he was also one of the few titans in the famously liberal Californian tech hub to espouse his outright support for Donald Trump.

By the year's end, though, the Silicon Valley pariah forced a site he compared to Al Qaeda to shut down and became a technology advisor to the president-elect.

He may not be popular, but in a year when Boris Johnson and Donald Trump triumphed, it looks like Thiel's multi-million dollar bets — $11 million to be exact — may have paid off.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

"There's a million things I haven't done, but just you wait," that's how Alexander Hamilton, as imagined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, introduces himself to the world. As for Miranda himself, it seems as if 2016 was the year he managed to do a million things.

After conceiving, writing and starring in one of the most commercially and critically successful Broadway plays of all time, he went on to record a tribute to the victims of the Orlando shooting with Jennifer Lopez, take a ride through New York City with James Corden, deliver a rousing speech about acceptance at the Tony Awards and write the score for Moana, Disney's controversial first animated film about Polynesian characters.

His work didn't go unrecognised. In one year he took home several Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. He was also named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2016.

And that was all before the publicity that came from Vice President-elect Mike Pence being booed at a performance of Hamilton in November.

Michel Temer

When he was sworn in as the 37th president of Brazil in September, the nation was enmeshed in a political turmoil. Temer became president after Dilma Rousseff, his predecessor, was impeached on claims that she had broken budgetary laws.

Rousseff's removal, which she and her allies and supporters viewed as a "parliamentary coup," led to protests across Latin America.

Despite the controversy, the 75-year-old Temer, who had served as Rousseff's vice president, will see out the rest of Rousseff's term, which ends in 2018. But Temer's actions during the impeachment trials left many wondering if he had set up Rousseff. His critics are calling for immediate elections.

Most damning was a series of Whatsapp messages he sent MPs that seemed to feature him practising a speech he would deliver upon Rousseff's impeachment, even before the hearing took place.

Now, he is left to steer the country through a shrinking economy, an 11.9 percent unemployment rate and the possibility that he himself may not make it through the remainder of the term.

Juan Miguel Santos

What should have been a victorious year for Santos, the Colombian President, has instead ended in irony.

After five decades of armed conflict, Santos managed to negotiate a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). That deal laid the groundwork for a bilateral ceasefire in the country's civil war that has left tens of thousands of dead or disappeared since 1964. It also would have allowed for anyone who confessed to a crime — whether on the side of the government or the rebels — to avoid jail time through a system of reparations and would have provided a temporary salary for de-militarised FARC fighters while they try to re-integrate into Colombian society.

The peace itself was the product of four years of negotiations between Santos and current FARC leader, Rodrigo Londono, often referred to as Timoleon Jimenez or Timochenko.

Yet in October, 50.2 percent of Colombians voted against the referendum that would formalise a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. Those opposed to the referendum said it let the rebels off too easy. Others feared that the end of political exclusion of FARC meant that its socialist ideology would become more influential on future Colombian governments.

The peace deal was supposed to be a boon to Santos, but it led to bitterness when his government was given the Nobel Peace Prize for a deal that ultimately floundered.

Jamie Vardy

If anyone seemed to come from nowhere this year, it was Jamie Vardy.

In May, he led Leicester City, a squad that had a 5,000-1 odds to become the Premier League champions. That was only a year after the team was accepted into the league.

It was a victory so improbable, the media dubbed it a "fairytale."

The star of that tale was, of course, Vardy, the 29-year-old forward who scored goals in a record 11 consecutive games.

Omar Mateen

On June 12, a previously unknown man named Omar Mir Seddique Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Within minutes, he would gun down 49 people with an AR-15 assault rifle. It would go on to become the 176th mass shooting in the US in 2016.

The massacre had the dual distinction of being the deadliest attack by a single shooter and the deadliest violent attack against the LGBT community in the United States. Mateen's killing spree forced a shocked nation to once again question their gun control policies.

As an obvious hate crime, the murders also propelled the continued homophobia in the nation back into the spotlight.

But hate seemed to beget hate, and the homophobic massacre only fed the tide of Islamophobia that was brewing in the nation. Suddenly, the media was talking about a born and raised US citizen as they would a foreign "terrorist."

Rather than looking at New York and Florida, where he had spent his entire life, for clues, multiple outlets began to wonder how Mateen's parents' homeland of Afghanistan — a country he had never visited — might have led him to commit such a brutal attack.

Rodrigo "Rody" Roa Duterte

In a year of triumphs for unconventional leaders, the Filipino President, who was sworn in, in late June, seemed to stand out in a crowded field.

Like Trump, Johnson and Jammeh, Duterte made headlines for his outlandish statements.

In October he said Barack Obama can "go to hell." That statement came only a month after he called the US President a "son of a whore." Considering the long-standing relationship between Manila and Washington, Duterte's vitriolic attacks on Obama left many in shock.

In mid-December, he claimed to have shot three men while he was Mayor of the southern city of Davao. He finished the year by threatening to throw corrupt officials from a helicopter, saying "I have done this before, why would I not do it again?"

Duterte's tough talk, including the claim that he personally killed people suspected of involvement in the nation's drug trade, has led the Commission on Human Rights, the Philippines' main human rights watchdog, to open an investigation into his claims.

The White Helmets

Running into bombed out buildings in Syria and pulling people from under rubble made the Syrian Civil Defence group famous in 2016, but their work started long before. The Nobel Peace Prize nominees — better known as The White Helmets — are a group of unarmed volunteers working in the most dangerous place in the world.

To date, the group tallies 78,529 lives saved. With the ongoing conflict in Syria raging, that number is steadily growing. 154 White Helmets have been killed in the process, many due to a Syrian regime tactic known as the double tap. One bomb falls on an area, and when rescuers come in to clear the rubble and look for survivors, another bomb is dropped ensuring a maximum loss of life.

Although they lost the Nobel Peace Prize to the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, their efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Especially by those they have rescued.

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