A spat between Madonna and the President of Malawi has taken an abrupt turn for the nasty, with the Malawian leader accusing her of "bullying" and "blackmail" while the pop star alleges that the President is using her office to promote her family's financial interests.
The bitter exchange of highly personal accusations is the latest twist in an escalating feud between Madonna and the leadership of the small African country where she has controversially adopted two children. It is a sign of the rising tensions over foreign aid in Africa, where wealthy foreign donors are often resented and criticized by politicians and activists because of a perception that some donors are arrogant and ineffective.
Madonna says she is the biggest individual philanthropist in Malawi, donating a reported $11-million to the country, but Malawi's government – led by President Joyce Banda – has become increasingly angered by her comments. The government says Madonna is lying about having built 10 schools in Malawi, and it is outraged by the suggestion that it unfairly denied VIP treatment for her when she flew out of Malawi last weekend.
Stripped of her usual VIP status, Madonna and her entourage were obliged to queue up with ordinary passengers for security checks at the regular airport terminal in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. She was also snubbed in her request for a meeting with Ms. Banda.
The famed singer seems to think that Malawi's government "should have abandoned everything and … rolled out a red carpet and blasted the 21-gun salute in her honour," said a statement on Wednesday by a spokesman for Ms. Banda's office.
It is "strange and depressing" that Madonna wants Malawi to be "forever chained to the obligation of gratitude" because she adopted two Malawian children, the statement said. "If it can't be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes."
The statement attacked Madonna for her criticism of Ms. Banda's sister, Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, who is embroiled in a financial dispute with the singer's Malawi charity after she was fired as its chief executive when funds allegedly disappeared. It said Madonna's criticism was "uncouth" and motivated by "personal frustrations that her ego has not been massaged by the state." It also accused her of "bullying state officials." And on her claim to have built 10 schools, it said: "Madonna needs to learn as a matter of urgency … the decency of telling the truth."
Madonna's spokesman and philanthropic adviser, Trevor Neilson, swiftly rejected the presidential statement. He said Ms. Banda is "using her office to pursue her sister's financial interests." He also rejected the government's claim that Madonna's charity had merely built 10 classrooms, rather than 10 schools.
The communities that received the school buildings "are simply overjoyed to have them," Mr. Neilson said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "In many of these communities, students were previously learning under trees. … The schools were built in the model of schools all across the country and around the world."
He said Ms. Banda appointed her sister to a senior position in the Education Ministry, where she is using her office "to pursue her grudge" against Madonna's charity. "I have been contacted by other foreign donors to Malawi who are interested in why the government is behaving this way."
The 54-year-old pop star has been deeply involved in Malawi since 2006, when she adopted 13-month-old David Banda. She adopted three-year-old Chifundo (Mercy) James in 2009 after making large donations to Malawian orphanages.
The two children had been living in orphanages, although in both cases their fathers were still alive. Malawian child-rights activists said the children were essentially given to Madonna as a token of thanks for her charitable donations in the country. They criticized her for bypassing the normal adoption rules in Malawi, which required parents to live in the country for 18 months before adopting a Malawian child.
In 2008, a Malawian judge rejected Madonna's attempt to adopt Chifundo, saying that a violation of the residency rule "could actually facilitate trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals." But the ruling was overturned in 2009 by an appeal court, which said Madonna could be considered a "resident" of Malawi because of the "long-term presence" of her charitable efforts.
Madonna promised to create an all-girls academy in Malawi, but cancelled the project after allegations of financial mismanagement by Ms. Banda's sister and other managers – a decision that infuriated many government officials. Nearly $4-million was spent on the project without breaking ground, Mr. Neilson said.