Malawi President Joyce Banda. File photo: AFP

Lilongwe - A senior Malawian civil servant and two executives went on trial for corruption on Wednesday, the first of dozens of defendants charged in the biggest financial scandal in Malawi's history.

“The cases have started and I pray that they'll go fast so that Malawians can finally know what happened,” Information Minister Brown Mpinganjira told AFP.

“We have been looking for answers and the answers can be found through the court proceedings.”

Known as “cashgate”, the scandal has led to charges against 68 civil servants and executives. So far authorities have tracked $20 million in stolen state funds, said Mpinganjira, amid rumours the figure could be as high as $100 million or more.

Government officials allegedly used a central government computer payment system to transfer money to non-existent firms for supposed services. They then deleted the companies' information off the system.

The opening Wednesday of the first trial in the case, which comes ahead of elections in May, drew a huge public turnout despite heavy downpours.

The scandal led to the suspension of around $150 million in foreign aid and has threatened President Joyce Banda's political career in an election year.

Once the scandal broke, Banda acted swiftly to restore her government's image, sacking her entire cabinet late last year and setting up an investigation into the allegations, which mostly implicate officials in her ruling People's Party.

These include the party's most senior official as well as Ralph Kasambara, a former justice minister arrested for money-laundering and conspiracy to murder after a corruption-busting official was shot outside his house last year.

Banda faces three prominent male election contenders including Peter Mutharika, a brother of the late president, during elections on May 20.

Previously vice-president, she came to power in 2012 following the sudden death of president Bingu wa Mutharika.

Her government has blamed “loopholes” in the payment system introduced when the late president started his term for the massive looting of public funds.

Prosecutors have said up to 30 percent of the impoverished southern African country's resources are plundered annually.

More arrests are expected when a probe backed by Britain and the European Union is completed, according to Mpinganjira.

“Everybody is waiting for the forensic audit report which will have good evidence of what happened and who was involved. The report will be undeniable and full-proof,” he said.