Blantyre -

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

Known as “Cashgate”, the case has led to charges against 68 state employees and executives accused of looting government funds to the tune of more than $20 million.

Leonard Kalonga, who was chief accountant in the tourism ministry, is accused of defrauding the government through the unauthorised purchase of six luxury buses worth $1.3 million. The buses were not meant for government use and it remains unclear what he planned to do with them.

Two directors of a construction company - Caroline Savala and Agnes Katengeza - also appeared accused of alleged theft and money laundering after they received payment from government without building anything.

The cases were adjourned to a later date.

“We have been looking for answers, and the answers can be found through the court proceedings,” Information Minister Brown Mpinganjira told AFP as the hearings kicked off.

“I pray that they'll go fast so that Malawians can finally know what happened,” he added.

So far authorities have tracked $20 million in stolen state funds, said Mpinganjira, with rumours the final figure could be as high as $100 million.

In some instances officials allegedly used a central government computer payment system to transfer money to ghost firms for supposed services. They then deleted the companies' information from the system.

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

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.

Banda has 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 poor 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,” he said. - Sapa-AFP