Malawi President Joyce Banda: When Madonna met her match

She has broken Africa’s glass ceiling, tackled corruption and fought for gay rights. The queen of pop never stood a chance

In a 48-hour equivalent of the “night of the long knives”, following the sudden death from a heart attack of Malawi's former strongman president Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April last year, Joyce Banda emerged as the face of a new Africa.

It was a spectacular victory for the first ever female leader in southern Africa, and only the continent's second after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. The late Bingu's inner circle was desperate to install Peter Mutharika, the former president's brother; but Banda, who formed the People's Party in 2011, swept to power with a clear mandate.

Many African ruling parties have a culture steeped in patriarchy and sexism, and view women as largely supportive props to their political husbands. When Bingu appointed Banda as his vice-president, he envisaged a largely ceremonial post, not unlike Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe's appointment of Joice Mujuru as his deputy. But Bingu and his cronies did not reckon on the steeliness of a woman with bigger ideas.

Nor were they alone. Earlier this week, Banda's office issued a withering statement against another powerful figure surrounded by acolytes. The target this time wasn't a government bureaucrat or some opponent of reform; rather, it was Madonna. The American queen of pop's relationship with Malawi began in 2006 with her son David's adoption – but soured suddenly with publication of a report accusing many of the local staff in her Raising Malawi charity of financial impropriety.

According to the statement from Banda's office, Madonna is "a musician who desperately thinks she must generate recognition by bullying state officials instead of playing decent music on the stage". She apparently wants the Malawian government to "roll out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour". She "thinks she deserves to be revered with state grandeur" and needs to learn "the decency of telling the truth", the statement said. Astonishingly, it compared her to Chuck Norris, the American actor known for his opposition to gun control. Madonna issued a statement strongly denying the allegations. Her fans took to airwaves and the social media to insinuate that the criticism was prompted by the removal of Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo – Banda's sister – as head of the main American humanitarian organisation in Malawi.

The explosive row gave succour and satisfaction to those who feel that pop stars and actresses who lecture the world on humanitarian matters – Angelina Jolie was at the G8 summit yesterday, talking about rape – ought to be put back in their box. But, as if the story wasn't bizarre enough, yesterday there was another unexpected twist.

Banda was furious again. This time, however, the target of her temper wasn't Madonna: it was her own office. Apparently it had released the extraordinary statement without Banda's prior knowledge or approval. "It looks like she was not consulted on this, nor did the press team realise the implications of their action in picking a fight with Madonna," a source close to Sanjika Palace, the presidential residence near the city of Blantyre, was reported as saying. Another described her as "incandescent with anger".

And yet, with customary confidence, Banda herself said that, despite the offence taken by Madonna, she won't be apologising. This African leader is as stubborn as they come – as any who followed her career have long since suspected.

Born on 12 April 1950 in Malemia village in Malawi's colonial capital, Zomba, she was a humble seller of mandasi (fritters) in the markets. Once, when she was dismissed by a political opponent as not presidential material, she said: "Yes, she's right. I'm indeed a mandasi seller and I'm proud of it, because the majority of women in Malawi are like us, mandasi sellers." She went on to take degrees from American and Italian universities, and earned renown for her work on female empowerment.

In 1989, she started the National Association of Business Women, which raised cash for women to start small businesses. In an interview with the Associated Press last year, she said: "Women didn't go to school when they were young because parents preferred to send their brothers. The women couldn't access loans in their own right because the banks sought the approval of a male dependent. The women couldn't make decisions at household level because they didn't bring any income into the household".

In a deeply conservative Malawi, where women play second fiddle to men, Banda left her first husband Roy Kachale in 1981, saying it was an abusive relationship. Her current husband is Richard Banda, a retired chief justice. As president, Banda participated in a protest march against attacks on women by men for dressing in miniskirts.

Banda started her political career in 1999, when she secured a seat in parliament. Her first senior political post was as minister for gender and community services in the cabinet of then President Bakili Muluzi. A year before former President Bingu died in 2012, Banda had clashed with him over his ineffective handling of the economy, his autocratic leadership style and his quashing of democratic rights. Not surprisingly, Bingu expelled her from the party, though she retained the deputy presidency. It was the anger among urban voters shocked at her expulsion that propelled her to power.

Her actions immediately after obtaining office signalled a clear statement of intent: this would be a different kind of African president, one who served the common people of her country. Not long after taking office, in a cleverly publicised gesture, she announced she would sell the presidential jet and fleet of 60 government-owned Mercedes limousines. Even smarter, she invited other African leaders to do the same. Their conspicuous failure to do so has shown her in a good light. Public transport would be her means of travel. "I'm used to hitch-hiking," she said.

But it was in her combative attitude towards other African leaders, and through a high-profile pledge to lift the country's ban on homosexuality – no small feat in modern Africa – that Banda began to court controversy. She took on the African Union, which critics increasingly accused of being a "club" for dictators, by refusing to allow Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir in to her country for the AU summit. Bashir was indicted by the ICC for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. The AU instructed her to allow Bashir to attend or forfeit the AU conference hosting right. She stood firm.

Soon after taking over the presidency, she also launched an investigation into the mysterious 2011 death of an activist who had criticised her predecessor.

Her critics say the bluster of this week is typical of a politician effective at generating heat and noise, but less so at getting things done. The business of government in Africa is a slow grind; deals have to be brokered, relationships nurtured and competing parties satisfied.

The government's economic recovery plan, these critics argue, is woefully out of date, and Banda will be punished when voters head to the polling booth next year.

All that, even if true, cannot conceal the basic achievement of her election; nor can it disguise the respect and acclaim she has earned among international peers for championing causes her predecessors wouldn't dare to (gay rights) and pushing for women's rights far beyond her own borders. Though she and Madonna may yet make up, the lesson of this week is clear: Malawi's Iron Lady is not for turning.

A Life In Brief

Born: Joyce Hilda Mtila, 12 April 1950, Malemia, Nyasaland (now Malawi).

Family: Eldest of five children. Father was a police brass band musician. She married and divorced Roy Kachale, with whom she has three children. Now married to Richard Banda; they have two children.

Education: Degrees from Columbus University and the Atlantic International University; diploma in management of NGOs from the International Labour Organisation.

Career: Began as a secretary, managed various businesses before founding the National Association of Business Women in 1989 and the Joyce Banda Foundation in 1997. Won a parliamentary seat in 1999, and held a number of cabinet positions before being elected vice-president in 2009. She became President last year.

She says: "My mission in life is to assist women in social and political empowerment through business and education."

They say: "I'm saddened that Malawi's President Joyce Banda has chosen to release lies about what we've accomplished, my intentions, how I personally conducted myself while visiting Malawi and other untruths." Madonna

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