On the eve of Charles Taylor’s conviction of war crimes, correspondent Daniel Howden visits Monrovia’s most visible icon of decay.
Photo by Glenna Gordon
Frank is the last guest at Monrovia’s Ducor Palace Hotel. A largely silent man who dresses like a mime and checked in “to be alone”. A security guard who knows him says he is disturbed, “maybe by the war but who knows?”
In a city still recovering from a debilitating civil war—on April 27, the International Court at the Hague convicted Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor of a host of war crimes—there are bigger things to worry about than one gentle squatter.
The Ducor’s three hundred rooms have been stripped bare and its last paying customer left in 1989. Frank’s laundry dances in the wind that blows off the Atlantic Ocean through the skeleton of the hotel and inland towards the slums of Chocolate City.
The hotel’s commanding position atop Monrovia’s Snapper Hill means it’s never been empty for long. In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s Liberian capital was, in the words of a local historian, a place of “extreme privilege” used as a playground for the local elite and their foreign friends. Built and operated by Intercontinental group, the Ducor was among the most famous luxury hotels in Africa. A former caretaker told The World’s Jason Margolis that Ugandan president Idi Amin swam in its soft-edged pool overlooking the ocean while still carrying his gun.
More recently it was a barracks for Nigerian soldiers and a shelter for the residents of the beach slums at West Point who camped in its rooms to escape the fighting. They were turfed out in 2006 when the government decided to sell the building to the Libyan government, a keen purchaser of prime African real estate. The wisdom of that decision played out in the desert outside Sirte where the hotel’s new owner was killed by his own people.
In the half century since it first opened its doors, the Ducor has lived Liberia’s tumultuous history and bears its scars. Some aquamarine tiles and monumental carved wooden panels which Frank uses as a cot are all that remain from its pomp. Now it stands like a ruined sentinel over Monrovia.
From the hotel’s fifth storey terrace, where aid workers and diplomats sometimes carry their drinks for a sundowner, you can see the architectural spectres of Monrovia’s past: the white outline of the masonic lodge where the descendants of US slaves recreated the social order of the American South; and the headquarters of the True Whig party with its stained glass windows that was the centre of Americo-Liberian power until 1980.
According to a colorful placard in the driveway featuring the current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf “the future starts here”. Only it hasn’t. Postcards from the 1960s show a shining hotel on a hill but now it’s surrounded by a wall of sheet metal and a thicket of overgrown palms and cashew trees.
It may yet make a comeback, but for now, in a town full of ghosts, the Ducor Palace is still the most haunting.