Liberia: President Weah's 'Magnanimous' Reprieve of Samukai

President Weah (left and Samukai. 

... Mixed messages about reconciliation, fight against corruption and Lofa, the county he could not conquer.

President George Weah has issued the convicted Senator-elect of Lofa County, Brownie Samukai, reprieve clemency. 

Samukai and two co-defendants were convicted for theft of property, criminal conspiracy, misuse of public money, and money laundering over US$1 million and sentenced to two years in prison, and ordered to restore the money. 

But the reprieve clemency issued by the President did not just suspend the jail order from the Supreme Court, it provides Samukai extra time to restitute the US$1,147,656.35 laundered. 

The reprieve, is part of the President's clemency power to relieve Samukai from the burden of forceful restitution of 50% of the judgment sum, equal to US$573,828.15 which he failed to do along with co-defendants, causing the Supreme Court to order their jailing until the full sum of the money is paid. 

Samukai, who won the December 2020 Lofa County Senatorial seat, is yet to be certificated due to the Court's ruling that he misappropriated money belonging to personnel of the Armed Forces of Liberia while serving as Minister of National Defense. 

The clemency also brings an end to the drawn-out legal saga of Samukai, whose whereabouts have been unknown after being ordered jailed by the Supreme Court, although it does not change the fact that he was convicted of a crime. 

The action by the President comes about a year after he had turned down pleas from Lofa citizens during his county tour to intervene in the case and have the case withdrawn. 

The President at the time argued that the law should take its course but, with the 2023 elections right around the corner, the reprieve clemency handed Samukai bears more political currency than the President's stated pledge to fight corruption to the letter. 

Now with reprieve clemency, President Weah would stand in a good position to improve on his vote intake in Lofa, the stronghold of his political archrival, former Vice President Joseph Boakai, come 2023. 

Despite overwhelming victory nationwide during the 2017 election, Weah performed poorly in Lofa, winning less than 15% of the votes from the country's fifth-largest county by population. 

"The President of Liberia, under Article 59 of the 1986 Constitution which vests in him the power and authority to grant reprieves, suspend fines, sentences and pardon anyone convicted and sentenced for a crime has, with immediate effect, ordered the suspension of the two (2) year prison sentence imposed on Mr.  Brownie Samukai, following his conviction by the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia; with the provision that he will work with the Ministry of Justice to enter a stipulation for the full settlement of the Armed Forces of Liberia money," said Minister Nathaniel McGill, who read the proclamation. 

The statement by the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and the Chief of Office Staff to the President then directed the Minister of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) to make full payment of the outstanding balance of the AFL money, while Mr. Samukai goes through the Stipulation Payment Agreement. 

All along, the Weah administration has defended the prosecution of Samukai and co-defendants, claiming adherence to the rule of law, while his critics slam it as a witch hunt due to Samukai's alleged refusal to join the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change during the 2020 election. 

But as the case lingered — delayed first by issues relating to the 50% restitution clause in his sentence requirement and an unsuccessful attempt to convince the Supreme Court that the payment of US$191,276.05  before Criminal Court “C” represented his personal share of the 50% judgment sum --- which equal to US$573,828.15 — the Weah administration ultimately moved to do so after all the . 

And this means that the action by President Weah has now mooted jailing proceedings against Samukai, which the Supreme Court ordered two weeks ago but could not take effect because his whereabouts were unknown. 

It might also halt or foreclose the decision by the Senate Pro-Tempore to declare Samukai's elected position vacant -- meaning the chance of him taking his seat as Senator for Lofa County is now more clear. 

So this intervention comes as a surprise, as at no time did the President leave open the possibility that his administration could end the prosecution of a favorite politician in the camp of his political rival, Boakai. 

It is worth noting that Samukai and his Unity Party have tried discrediting and dismantling the trial-- arguing that the claimed basis for Samukai prosecution made no sense and seemed to be cover for a politically motivated favor -- since the Weah administration in 2017, prior to the trial --- agreed to pay the money in question. 

In a twist of turn, however, they are now celebrating the President's magnanimous action -- executive clemency in the form of reprieve. 

Allies of President Weah and his government have celebrated the move, arguing that the President is fulfilling his Bicentennial message, which centers around reconciliation. 

But for some critics of the government, the move demonstrated the President's lack of commitment to fight corruption despite his pledge to do so (big politicians cannot go to jail).

The case against Samukai, which was incredibly contentious, came to a crossroads after the Supreme Court revoked the suspension of the two-year jail sentence handed against him and his two deputies for failing collectively failed to comply with the high court’s mandate and judgment to pay 50% of the judgment sum, equal to US$573,828.15, within six months of last year. 

That ruling then means that Samukai would have served two years imprisonment along with his co-defendants, Joseph Johnson and James Nyuman Ndokor, while paying the full judgment amount of US$1,147,656.35, minus the amount the former paid.

The three former Defense Ministry officials were jointly indicted and found guilty for theft of property, criminal conspiracy, misuse of public money, and money laundering in the sum of US$1,147,656.35. 

Their two-year sentence was suspended by the Supreme Court on condition that they (defendants) would restitute 50 percent of the amount payable within six months, a condition which the defendants appear to have breached. 

So the high court, on January 27, ruled that Samukai and his two deputies remain in prison until the balance amount is fully liquidated at the rate of US$25.00 per month, for what the court termed as a gross violation on the part of the defendants. 

Before the Supreme Court judgment, Samukai made the payment of US$191,276.05 in three separate checks before Criminal Court “C” Judge Blamo Dixon, but Justice Yuoh that said payment by Samukai does not constitute 50% nor adherence to the conditions in which the jail sentence was suspended by the supreme court. 

The Court said that law provides that where criminal defendants are jointly adjudged guilty of a crime, they are together, considered collectively responsible for any fines or penalty until the judgment is fully satisfied.  

It had been expected by some, especially supporters of the former Defense Minister, that the amount already paid by Samukai would have satisfied only his portion of the required amount, leaving his two co-defendants to come up with their portion.  

However, Justice Yuoh said that the defendants were jointly charged and convicted and that, at no time did that honorable court order any of the defendants to make payment separately from the others. As such, she noted, the issue of separate payment by the defendants has no place in the Supreme Court’s verdict.

And now that the reprieve clemency has been issued, it remains unclear whether that could affect the other two defendants since they were jointly convicted of the crimes and not separate.