The American singer, whose school-building charity projects have led tobitter acrimony, spoke out on Saturday after southern Africa’s first female president sought to nullify an election in which she apparently faces defeat.
“I am so sad to see that because of the actions of their president, Malawians will continue to suffer,” Madonna said. “In my philanthropic work I have seen the depths of corruption in Malawi’s government. I can only hope that change will come: Malawians deserve so much better.”
Citing “fraudulent and rampant irregularities”, Banda declared the national poll “null and void”. Fresh elections should be held within 90 days but she would not stand as a candidate, she said, to “give Malawians a free and fair” election. “As president I have used the powers conferred upon me from the constitution.”
The national electoral commission contested her annulment announcement, saying she did not have the power to cancel elections, plunging Malawi into a constitutional crisis. Maxon Mbendera, chair of the commission, insisted that the poll was “valid” and Banda was acting out of “desperation”. Malawi’s high court then issued an injunction stopping Banda from interfering in the electoral process.
Partial results showed Banda’s main rival, Peter Mutharika, well ahead in the polls. He said on Saturday: “Nothing in the constitution gives the president powers to cancel an election. This is clearly illegal, unconstitutional and not acceptable.”
There were protests in the town of Limbe, outside the southern commercial hub of Blantyre, where demonstrators smashed shops, police said.
Mutharika added: “There is no legal basis for stopping the election. We have become a laughing stock and the sooner it ends the better for us. I appeal to the president to ask people to be calm and I hope she abandons the path she is taking because we don’t need to take this country on the path of violence.”
Banda has had a long-running feud with Madonna, who adopted two Malawian children and runs several projects but was widely criticised after abandoning plans to build a £9m elite academy for girls. Last year Malawi described her as a bully who demanded VIP treatment, although it later emerged this statement was released without Banda’s knowledge or approval.
In turn Madonna’s supporters have accused Banda of sour grapes because her sister, Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, was sacked as head of the singer’s humanitarian organisation in Malawi after allegations of financial mismanagement.
Trevor Neilson, president of the Global Philanthropy Group, which manages Madonna’s projects in the country, said: “Banda rewarded her sister for this by giving her a senior position in the education ministry.
“Since that time Madonna has continued her work in Malawi, working with partners to build schools serving over 1,000 students, fund the operations of clinics, orphanages, etc. She has done all of this despite Banda ordering state-owned media to continuously attack her in an effort to help her sister’s lawsuit against the organisation she was terminated from.
“Madonna has been subjected to constant attacks by Banda and the media she controls, and often these attacks have been picked up and printed as if they are fact by international media who know nothing about Malawi.
“We have been saying for years that Banda and her family were notmodels for African leadership. I can’t tell you how many friends who are NGO leaders have pulled me aside insisting that actually Banda was great and that I should support her. Now it appears that the people of Malawi agree with our assessment.”
Banda was a darling of the west when she became Africa’s second female head of state and she had a prominent role at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last year. But her domestic popularity waned after she imposed austerity measures, including a devaluation, to stabilise the economy. Her government has been embroiled in a £60m corruption scandal known as “cashgate” that has seen foreign donors freeze aid.
With about a third of the votes counted, Mutharika had 42% of the vote, while Banda was on 23%, according to preliminary results announced by the electoral commission late on Friday.
But police ordered a shutdown of the election tally centre in Blantyre after Banda’s announcement. She has alleged people voted multiple times, ballots were tampered with and presiding officers arrested, while the computerised voter counting system collapsed. Her supporters have claimed that Mutharika – who is already facing pre-election treason charges – may be behind the irregularities.
Mutharika is the brother of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika , who died in office two years ago.