Hotel Africa and the Crumbling of Modernity
Malkit Shoshan visits a Dom-Ino House, a UN Base, and an Irish Bar
On the coast of Monrovia, along the shores of the Atlantic, a former luxury resort stands dilapidated, embodying the shattered dreams of emancipation and a long history of violence. Our visit to the former five-star Hotel Africa in Liberia in 2017 was part of a field study and a long-term research project titled BLUE: The Architecture of UN Peace Missions,1 which investigates the impacts of United Nations peacekeeping missions on cities, communities, and the environment.
Upon our arrival, we were scheduled to visit Camp Clara, a recently evacuated UN base situated within the Hotel Africa complex and one of the first deployment sites of troops from the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL). We met our hosts—an Egyptian peacekeeper and a logistics director from El Salvador—at the UN headquarters’ secured parking lot, crowded with white SUVs, and headed to the camp, some sixteen kilometers away on the northern outskirts of Monrovia.
As we drove toward the Virginia District—originally called New Virginia by the largely African-American population that settled there—Monrovia began to reveal itself. We passed compounds, ministry buildings, a university campus, local markets, schools, and informal neighborhoods. Since the deployment of UNMIL in 2003, the road leading to the headquarters has been populated by small businesses, hotels, restaurants, shops, and small compounds catering to the large community of foreign diplomats and aid and development workers. Many of these venues, we were told, were owned and managed by a group of Lebanese businessmen involved in the region since the 1960s.
In 2016, UN peacekeeping missions were present in more than 170 municipalities in Africa, tending to a combined population of 31 million. They covered an area of over one million square kilometers, including more than 270 bases, super camps, and outposts, as well as 310 medical clinics. Although UN missions are frequently perceived, planned, and budgeted as temporary interventions, the median lifespan of a mission is 6.5 years, and many operations—such as those in Liberia, Darfur, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire and Kosovo—have lasted notably longer. The median lifespan of the 14 ongoing UN missions is 19 years. ↩
Our hosts from the UN shared their experiences with us, at times mentioning their isolated lives in Liberia, the long distances from home, their disconnect from the local community. They faced difficulties finding suitable lodging: local housing was of poor quality and rents were skyrocketing. The real-estate and tourism industries, they said, were run by business-savvy landlords who hiked their rates for international aid and development workers, so the rental price of an apartment in Monrovia could end up being equal to those in New York or London’s prime neighborhoods. Although market rates were inflated, profits that could have been used to improve the quality of the built environment or to facilitate better access to essential services were not invested back into the city or the community. Everything was made to be transitory, exploited, and unsustainable.
This lack of long-term investment was particularly evident during the Ebola epidemic that struck Liberia from 2014 to 2016, when, as the peacekeepers described, the dread of death was everywhere and mandatory isolation hit local communities hard. UNMIL itself had been deployed after the second of two civil wars that left the country in ruin. but by 2015, it had begun to wind down. Its departure, coinciding with a dip in global commodity prices and the Ebola crisis, resulted in a steep economic decline from which Liberia has yet to recover. Much of the population still lacks access to basic services such as clean water and electricity. Almost half of Liberians are food-insecure, and healthcare is either inaccessible or unaffordable for the vast majority.1
Eventually, we passed the city centre and seaport and made our way through a sprawl of informal tin huts. Bright green palms and mango trees unevenly covered the exposed soil, and we drove off-road, leaving clouds of red dust behind.
Leah Zamore and Shavon Bell, Launch of UN Peacekeeping Missions in Urban Environments: The Legacy of UNMI (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2019). ↩
Camp Clara had been decommissioned and handed over to the Liberian government half a year before our arrival. By the time we reached the site, the UN troops and most of their equipment were gone. The Egyptian peacekeeper parked the SUV at the edge of a barbed-wire fence and an armed guard in civilian clothing came toward us. We were told that the land had been purchased from the government by a South Africa-based private investment company, which would spend more than USD 100 million on rebuilding the hotel. In the meantime, the company had hired security to protect the asset and keep away trespassers.
After a short chat, the guard allowed us on site, where Camp Clara and the Hotel Africa building shared the same lush tropical soil. Each, in turn, had its own distinct function, legacy and ghostly imprint. The first visible trace of the hotel was a seven-story, modernist-looking block with strip balconies along its façade overlooking the Atlantic. On the ground floor, there were the remnants of a grand lobby, two circular halls surrounded by greenery—now a mix of invasive tropical plants that had taken over once-manicured gardens—and a pool shaped like the African continent.
In The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper describes the glory days of the hotel.1 The luxury beachfront resort was funded by a group of Congolese businessmen and Lebanese merchants to host the 1979 meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In expectation of the OAU meeting, the chairing Liberian government set up a series of billboards along Tubman Boulevard depicting African leaders. Many were left blank, as Cooper writes, because governments across the continent were facing coups and revolutions. Soon after its construction, Hotel Africa became known for its extravagant parties. The round dance halls of its famous Bacardi Disco hosted wedding receptions and pool parties.
When we arrived, the building was bare, stripped of its furniture, window frames, and doors. The remaining skeleton revealed only the structure, pillars, and stairs—a postwar ruin shaped like Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House. Looted and partially burned, its walls were covered in bullet holes. The building’s height, offering a panoramic view of the entire area and coastline, had made it a strategic location during the wars. Rebels had used the building to launch attacks on Monrovia in 2003.
Helene Cooper, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2008). ↩
For a moment, while walking past the pool toward the beach, I felt a breeze from the sea that reminded me of Haifa, a city in Israel along the Mediterranean coast, where I grew up. Later, I saw a series of national flags on poles at the far edge of the site that seemed oddly new. One had blue and white stripes. To my surprise, it was Israel’s.
It’s strange to realize how personal associations and other histories can intertwine in a thought at moments like this. The links between Liberia and Israel, their successes and tragic failures, go back to the nineteenth century, to movements and ideologies of liberation from oppression and violence and to the idea of a return. For the Jewish people, it was Zionism, the return to the promised land, which inspired Black Zionism, the movement for emancipated slaves’ return to Africa.
In 1822, American settlers arrived in this area with ships of emancipated slaves under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. With the support of President James Monroe, they purchased a small piece of land from local chiefs, later naming it Monrovia in the president’s honour. As the number of settlers grew, the native population dwindled; the emancipation of one group resulted in the dispossession of another. Liberia’s late-twentieth-century civil wars can be traced back to this act of liberation—a story not dissimilar to that of Israel and Palestine.
As I walked along the remains of the pool, a security guard who had enthusiastically accompanied us pointed out the former hotel. Next to it stood a woman holding a baby and watching us with a timid smile. Kids were running around. The guards, it seemed, lived with their families in the ruins of the hotel.
Between the pool and the hotel were the derelict metal frames of two modular military hangars left behind by UNMIL. From where I stood, I saw bodies crumbling into other bodies: the remnants of a former modernist beach resort with its pool, disco club, and casino all in ruin, the skeletal frames of the modular military structures, and fragments of canvas bearing the UN logo. The ferocity of the damage inflicted on the hotel building and the tenuous skeletons of the UN modules stood together in deafening silence as reminders of tragic failure, a collapse of collective hope, national dreams, and modernity itself.
It was a lot to take in, but the peacekeepers prompted us to continue toward the beach cabanas and villas, some of the various lodgings Hotel Africa had offered. We walked down an unpaved path toward the far end of the site facing the Saint Paul River. This part had round, single-story bungalows with gazebo roofs. Designed as apartment suites, each included a living room, a kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, and a garden. Scattered, small, and seemingly insignificant, the cabanas seemed in better shape than the hotel block. Some of the units had been repurposed and used by UN peacekeepers for storage, office space, and as bars.
The largest bungalow, overlooking the estuary where the Saint Paul River and the Atlantic come together, was also where Charles Taylor, president of Liberia from 1998 to 2003 and for a time the most prominent warlord in Africa, liked to hang out at the hotel. Taylor, who earned a degree at Bentley College in the US and trained as a guerilla fighter in Libya, returned to Liberia in 1989 to overthrow Samuel Doe’s government, beginning the First Liberian Civil War.1 For a while thereafter, he lived at Hotel Africa, using it as a hub for global smuggling networks and trading illicit diamonds for arms.
At that time, one of the hotel’s permanent residents was Guus van Kouwenhoven, a Dutchman who had been caught and imprisoned by the FBI in the 1970s for attempting to sell stolen artwork, including a Rembrandt. In the 1980s, van Kouwenhoven ended up in Liberia managing Hotel Africa, and then headed up the Liberian Oriental Timber Cooperation, a cover for his gunrunning. At the hotel, Van Kouwenhoven and Taylor traded weapons, later expanding their operations to Guinea and Sierra Leone. Likewise, Viktor Bout, a former KGB officer and military translator who used Hotel Africa as a base for his pilots, smuggled weapons from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East after the collapse of the Soviet Union.2 The history of violence entrenched in these three inhabitants stills reads in the skeletal hotel complex today.
When UNMIL was launched in 2003, shortly after Taylor’s exile, the first UN troops deployed at Camp Clara were Irish peacekeepers who turned Taylor’s cabanas into a recreation room and an Irish bar. During our visit, we followed our hosts to the front door of the cabanas and exited through the back door into the former garden. We could see the estuary, a stunning view, and our hosts stood in awe of the transition. They had loved visiting this base during their deployment for the bar and restaurant along the riverbanks. The site offered a place for coming together and for rare moments of escapism from the day-to-day pragmatism of peace missions—and from what can feel at times like their utter futility.
The hosts had good memories of outdoor gatherings, enjoying the backdrop of the ocean and the river, and were elated to see that a wooden deck the UN troops had installed along the riverbanks was still partially intact. For us, the deck was a ruin, a vacant remnant of the UN’s presence. The big cabana looked like the last spot the UN had evacuated, as if they had left in a rush. There were large sheets of plastic hanging from a temporary wall, pieces of outdoor rubber flooring, and UN food packaging scattered around.
Here, one reality tumbled into another: a layered history of colonization, hedonism, greed, war, international relations, diplomacy, and the global apparatus of humanitarian aid all left their marks. The remains—whether defaced by graffiti and bullet holes, torn away by looters, or left behind by the UN mission—inhabit the former resort complex not as ghosts but as living artifacts. In a way, Hotel Africa and Camp Clara seemed to still coexist in symbiosis with the surrounding ocean and plants. The ocean waves had reclaimed a few cabanas, and the humidity and salt had worked their way into the material, carving new shapes in the wood, concrete, metal, and plastic. Tropical plants and their exposed roots had entered the buildings, covering floors and walls and taking over some of the domesticated plants that had been brought in by landscapers from around the world to decorate the hotel gardens.
The day we walked around the site was beautiful. The sea was calm, the breeze was gentle. Children around us went on playing. What was once a storied hotel was, for them, not a broken ruin but a new home.