A long-awaited trial opened in the West African country of Benin on Thursday into an alleged Ponzi scheme described as the biggest financial scandal in the country's history.

Twenty people are facing charges at the court in the country's economic capital of Cotonou for conspiracy, defrauding the public and practising illegal banking.

The case first emerged in 2010 when the firm ICC Services (Investment Consultancy and Computing Services) and others were accused of defrauding people of their life savings through a scheme reminiscent of the Bernie Madoff scandal in the United States.

According to a report by the International Monetary Fund, nearly 150,000 people, perhaps more, lost their money between 2006 and 2010 on the false promise of lucrative rewards.

The total amount estimated to have been defrauded was more than 150 billion CFA francs (nearly 230 million euros, $262 million).

Investors were promised for example a return of 150-200 percent on their investments per quarter and reimbursement of capital at the end of a year.

The alleged fraud involved paying initial investors with the money put in by new clients.

The accused were called to appear on Tuesday but the hearing was pushed back until Thursday at the request of defence lawyers who wanted a detailed list of all the alleged victims.

‘The criminal jury was formed and we are now moving towards opening speeches,’ a lawyer for the plaintiffs told AFP.

‘The outcome of the trial is eagerly awaited by the victims who seven years after being cheated want justice to be served,’ said Cymbeline Adanjouenon, a trader who said she lost 1.5 million CFA francs in the scheme.

‘Many of us have preferred to follow the case from a distance because we don't understand a great deal of the trial,’ added another victim Cyriaque Adomey, who has attended the hearings.

Benin's government in 2010 launched a compensation scheme for victims but tens of thousands are still waiting for the sums they invested to be paid back.

But the administration itself was accused of endorsing the scheme. Former president Thomas Boni Yayi, a former banker, has denied wrong-doing.