Win it like Buhari: 5 startup lessons to take away from Nigerian elections


March 28 was a historic date in Nigeria’s history as it marked the first time the opposition defeated the ruling party in democratic elections in Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy.

Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader who had ruled Nigeria for a 20-month period in the early 1980s, campaigned as a born-again democrat and saw the tide of public opinion turn in his favor.

Here, CNN’s African Start-Up examines Buhari’s campaign strategy and reveals the key business lessons entrepreneurs can adapt for startup success.

If at first you don’t succeed… keep going

This wasn’t the first time Buhari had run for the highest political office in Nigeria — in fact, it was his fourth attempt. He could have quit on several occasions, but didn’t, and his persistence was rewarded at last month’s polls.

Buhari’s endurance and perseverance in the face of setbacks is a key lesson young entrepreneurs can take heed of, says Femi Longe, co-founder and programs director at CcHub, a tech innovation space in Lagos.

“The reality is that starting a business is everyday slog,” explains Longe, who is an expert in social entrepreneurship. “A huge chunk of startups is just surviving to see the next day. You don’t know when the big break will come.”

Learn from mistakes and don’t be afraid to re-brand

Another area for entrepreneurs to take into consideration is Buhari’s readiness to learn from the previous unsuccessful bids and make changes to the way he communicated his message.

“He was willing to smile a bit more, was willing to dress in the outfits of the different tribes, he was willing this time to actually campaign extensively across the country to change the image that people had of him,” says Longe. “There was a lot of work to make him more presentable.”

Similarly, startups need to be flexible and be able to adapt their campaigns to meed the needs of their target markets. Longe explains: “At the end of the day it’s about your customers, it’s about your users. And you need to think about how does my business appeal to each of their individual needs and concerns while not losing my core essence.”


Focus on setting the right agenda

Buhari has also been praised for reading the ground reality accurately and delivering a focused and consistent message. Lazarus Apir, program manager of Transition Monitoring Group, a not-for-profit organization that helped monitor and corroborate official results, explains that even in Buhari’s failed attempts in previous elections, he showed an unwavering focus on his outlook for the country.

“Focus is very crucial,” he says. “Buhari said security, he said corruption, he said infrastructure — all of these problems have continued in Nigeria and today they are only at their worst.

“He has kept the focus of things that he is seeing. If anyone wants to build a business empire for themselves, it is very important that they maintain focus. There is a temptation is to be overly dynamic but then (entrepreneurs) lose focus.”

Find the right team

Many experts have hailed Buhari’s choice of Yemi Osinbajo as running mate as part of the election success story — a cue entrepreneurs can take in their business plans, says Longe.

“The last time (Buhari) ran, he didn’t have the appeal across the country. And this time he had an alliance that gives him appeal across the country. He has people that helped with improving the image of the areas where people had worries about his personality. He was able to work through all of them,” he continues.

“We are not judging him as an individual but the collective capabilities of the team around him. The focus is not on one man but the team. Where the man himself has a weakness, the rest of the team can cover that and you need to have your A-players in charge.”

Embrace social media and use it properly

Social media has globally become one of the most important tools for candidates during election campaigns — and Nigeria’s race was no exception. Cynthia Mbamalu, programs manager atNigerian youth charity YIAGA, said platforms like Twitter and Facebook helped the Buhari campaign to reach population pockets that they could have otherwise missed.

“Social media provided the opportunity to connect with Nigerians, especially young people,” she explains. “For the first time in a long while there were tweets targeted mainly at promoting the person of General Buhari and the party’s vision for Nigeria.”

Mbamalu says the main selling point for startups to incorporate social media into their ongoing strategies is that it allows businesses to enter a vibrant marketplace and engage with customers.

“Customer satisfaction is vital in every business endeavor; people are more open to a system that guarantees that their opinions are important. Social media provides the right amount of buzz a viable business idea may need.”

But she adds: “Businesses need to understand intrigue, trends and interplay on social media to strategically carve its niche.”