Malawi's President Joyce Banda, under pressure from foreign aid donors and facing a tough re-election battle, on Wednesday promised a forensic audit of suspected government corruption over the last decade.
Banda said the audit, backed by Britain and the European Union, would help reveal the extent of corruption in the impoverished Southern African state.
"The forensic audit will be backdated to 2005 … we need to know where we are coming from so that we can forgive each other," said Banda. "It's not war."
The probe was prompted by the unveiling of a massive corruption scandal last year, implicating top government officials. As a result, Banda sacked her entire cabinet, jettisoning top ministers and 30 civil servants and politicians from Banda's ruling party will go on trial in February.
But not before donors pulled vital funding.
Last year, the European Union said it would not release €29-million in scheduled financing to the aid-dependent nation until the government deal with the fraud.
Banda, who became president in 2012, once said about 30% of the country's resources were plundered or lost to fraud.
Last week, she admitted that she took a "political risk" in launching a major fight against corruption ahead of elections on May 20.
The probe is expected to take about six months to conclude, while the trial was scheduled to start on Wednesday. The case comes just four months ahead of elections in Malawi.
Some political pundits are hoping that among the suspects some will be bold enough to link the president to the public looting. Speculation about her involvement has been rife since the scandal was revealed following the shooting of budget director Paul Mphwiyo in September.
Was the president involved?
Mphwiyo is reported to have been on the verge of exposing a corruption ring when unknown gunmen shot him outside his home on September 3. He survived the shooting and went for specialised treatment in South Africa. Mphwiyo will be the number one state witness during the trials.
Billy Banda, director of rights group Malawi Watch, said: "What Malawians can conclude is that the president's hands are not clean in this issue … somewhere and somehow the president's hands are there in this scandal."
Banda said Malawians would be interested to know how much the president knew about the looting, which her government has blamed on loopholes in the payment system. "There are so many questions that need to be answered."
Meanwhile, a Catholic rights group accused Banda of being "part and parcel" of the fraud scandal.
Peter Chinoko, an outspoken head of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in the Lilongwe archdiocese, said: "We have concrete evidence about the president's involvement and being part and parcel of the scandal."
Chinoko said the looting was aimed sponsoring the campaign of Banda's ruling People's Party, which was only formed a year ago with no national grassroots support, ahead of May 20 local, national and presidential elections.
Information Minister Brown Mpinganjira, a key backer of Banda's policies, has dismissed the claims by Chinoko, saying this was a "plan to blackmail the president so that she stops the investigations currently under way".
"The president is being threatened to embarrass and frustrate her efforts to fight corruption," Mpinganjira, a veteran politician said.
"This is a well planned and calculated strategy by those that are trying to run away from the full force of the law to try and smear as many individuals as possible."
Joyce Banda has said she took a "political risk to launch a fight against corruption five months before the elections".
She says the fight against corruption "must come first, winning elections comes second to me".
One prominent figure on trial is businessperson Oswald Lutepo, a senior official in Banda's party, who is accused of theft and money laundering and is alleged to have pocketed more than $6-million from government coffers through ghost companies which did not provide any services to the state.
Lutepo is said to have donated 22 vehicles to Banda's party and paid a record bail bond of $100 000.
Malawians will also follow with keen interest the evidence in court of former justice minister Ralph Kasambara, who has been charged with attempted murder of Mphwiyo although police have yet to establish the link between the shooting incident and the scandal.
The president has publicly claimed that Mphwiyo's shooting was "a planned and targeted attack aimed at silencing him and the government in the fight against high levels of corruption and fraud".
She has often insisted Mphwiyo will give the correct version of events leading to his shooting.
She has conceded that corruption is deeply entrenched in Malawi, but insists that it predates her tenure by years.
Nonetheless, the case represents a threat to her hopes of winning the presidency in May.
Billy Mayaya, director of the National League for Democracy and Development, told the Guardian the scandal means her chances of winning are "very slim".
She said: "Malawians are angry at the massive looting of government resources and want answers as who is really behind this rot." – Sapa-AFP; additional reporting by © Guardian News and Media 2014