Liberia’s abandoned hotel stands as a symbol of a haunted past

Towering above Liberia’s ramshackle capital, Monrovia, stands a hotel that once symbolised an African dream, yet today it lies in ruins, a legacy of brutal conflict.

When it opened its doors in 1960, the Ducor was one of the only five-star hotels in Africa, boasting a night club and air-conditioned rooms, according to travel guides.

At its height, it hosted VIPs such as former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Guests would lounge next to the swimming pool, sipping cocktails and watching the sun set over the Atlantic. 

But the Ducor closed in 1989 at the outbreak of back-to-back civil wars that ran from 1989 to 1997 and from 1999 to 2003, and swiftly fell into disrepair. 

Today, little of Monrovia bears the visible marks of war, but the Ducor’s decaying hulk stands as a reminder of the conflict that killed more than 250 000 people. 

The hotel lies in limbo, and even who owns it seems unclear.

The ruin, on top of one of the city’s highest hills, looms over Monrovia’s downtown and the densely populated West Point slum. 

The former hotel’s rooms have been stripped bare, mildewy walls are pockmarked with bullet and shell holes, and the grounds have become a haunt for drug users.

“It makes everybody sad,” said Ambrose Yebea, a retired tourism ministry official who previously offered tours of the hotel. 

Liberia’s government once planned to restore the hotel to its former glory with the help of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

But there has been no progress since his downfall in 2011, and time continues to chip away at the Ducor.

There were few hotels in Monrovia in the 1950s, according to Yebea, prompting the construction of the Ducor in 1960 to cater for travelling executives and government officials. 

Designed by Israeli architect Moshe Mayer, in modernist style, it became one of Africa’s most luxurious hotels. 

Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, who later became prime minister, attended its opening ceremony. As did Guinea’s independence leader, Sékou Touré. 

Photos of the hotel from the era show a gleaming building and guests taking life easy. 

One of the persistent anecdotes related to the Ducor, which AFP was unable to verify, holds that former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin swam in the pool with his gun. 

Another guest, Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was so taken with the hotel that he arranged for Mayer to build a similar luxury establishment in Abidjan, which is still in operation.

Many of Africa’s leaders stayed at the Ducor during the 1960s and 1970s, including Selassie, Yebea said, with several of them booking rooms during the 1979 conference of the Organisation of African Unity in Monrovia. 

But by that point, the hotel was probably already in decline. 

A 1975 World Bank report on Liberia describes the eight-storey hotel as “run down” and mentions government plans to renovate it. 

Former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor positioned gunmen in the Ducor during the 2003 siege of Monrovia, at the close of the war. 

Ruins: The luxury Ducor hotel opened in 1960 and was frequented by heads of state. Photo: jbdodane.com

Later, squatters occupied the site. But then president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won office in Liberia’s first post-war election, evicted them in 2007. 

She launched renovation plans. In 2011, her government handed the Ducor to the Libyan African Investment Company, a subsidiary of Libya’s sovereign wealth fund. 

According to a 2011 government statement, the hotel was to have 151 rooms, restaurants, a shopping centre, a tennis court and a casino — as well as provide jobs in the impoverished country.

But the project — which, with another scheme to develop a rubber-processing plant, was priced at $65-million — then fell to another war. 

Liberia cut ties with Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 as the country descended into civil war. Renovation works stopped. 

“It came to us as a big shock,” said Frank Williams, a labourer who said he had been one of 150 people employed by the Libyan African Investment Company. “Today we are jobless.” 

The project has been at a standstill since then, and its future is unclear. 

Neither Liberia’s presidency nor its tourism ministry, nor the Libyan African Investment Company, responded to several requests for information. 

The Libyan entity is under European Union sanctions over its alleged close links to the former Gaddafi regime. 

In 2020, the United Nations Security Council also said that the Libyan African Investment Company is struggling financially, incurring debts for the hotels under its management.

Some still hope to see the Ducor reborn. Yebea said it could lure tourists and generate jobs. “Every Liberian sees it the same way. They want it to be refurbished”. — AFP

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