MONROVIA, Liberia — Construction crews are hard at work at fixing up this country’s Executive Mansion, the enormous and historic edifice that is supposed to be home to whoever wins the presidential elections.
If, that is, they have the stomach to move in.
The place, as any Liberian will tell you, is both haunted and jinxed. I’m from Liberia, so I should know. No president who has slept at the Mansion for any extended period has come to a decent end. Spirits are said to roam the hallways, while the applause of ghosts can be heard late at night, as if clapping at the end of a speech.
Security guards stationed at the Mansion — everybody in Liberia calls it “the Mansion” — report that sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, around the time President William R. Tolbert was gutted, in pajamas and bathrobe, by men led by a successor (who would come to his own premature end), the smell of cooking food wafts through the air as ghosts prepare poor Mr. Tolbert’s last meal.
The current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, appears to have made it to the end of her term intact; she will be stepping down in January after her successor is chosen in a runoff scheduled for Nov. 7.
That’s if it happens. With one exception, the men from the major parties vying to replace her who didn’t come in first in the Oct. 10 elections are complaining that the vote, which international observers say was fair, was not.
Worried that the former soccer star George Weah, who garnered by far the most votes in October, is poised to win the runoff, three of the other major candidates, including Mrs. Sirleaf’s own vice president, have called for the election results to be annulled. They accused Mrs. Sirleaf, who didn’t publicly endorse anyone, of interfering on behalf of the soccer player, whom she beat twice.
However this shakes out, one thing seems clear: Mrs. Sirleaf has survived. And the common wisdom here is that one reason for this is her refusal to sleep at the Mansion, except for a couple of nights after she was inaugurated in 2006.
As they say in Liberia, “small shame better than big shame.” Within days, Mrs. Sirleaf was out of there, returning to her own house under a claim that the place needed to be redecorated before she could move in.
Close friends and associates of Mrs. Sirleaf say she was appalled at what met her when she arrived at the building. In the master bedroom that housed her predecessors, the windows had been painted black. Ditto for the windows in the small family dining room.
The long creepy hallway where Mr. Tolbert was killed was, well, still long and creepy. The walls of the master bathroom were all mirrors. A circular sitting room the floor below the residential quarters was stained with blood on the walls and the carpet.
And the ceiling of what was supposed to be Mrs. Sirleaf’s office was painted with angels with the somber countenance of Jesus Christ, just over where her desk was supposed to be.
When Mrs. Sirleaf asked that the angels and Jesus be removed, superstitious workers refused. With all of the rumors of dark magic that was believed to have gone on in the building, they weren’t about to take Jesus off the ceiling.
Mrs. Sirleaf quietly got someone else to repaint the ceiling one night. She declined to go into the particulars during a recent interview. “There were flying angels on the ceiling in the office,” she said. “Of course we took that off.”
Conveniently, a couple of months later, a fire that the authorities ruled was electrical, but that most people believe was arson, destroyed enough of the residence’s interior that Mrs. Sirleaf could credibly order up a nice, lengthy renovation, not to be completed until she was out of office.
Twelve years and two presidential terms later, the renovation still isn’t finished. When President George W. Bush came to visit in 2008, and shook his booty alongside Mrs. Sirleaf to some Liberian high life music, they did so on the grounds of the Mansion, but not inside.
Renovation will be finished in about two years, about a third of the way into the next president’s term.
“Eh-hehn, then we will see!” said Steven Togba, 82, who goes by the name Old Man Steven and lives near the Mansion in the Boozy Quarters neighborhood.
Old Man Steven said you couldn’t pay him to live there. “You see what happened to Tolbert?” he said. Then he remembered a few other occupants. “And Doe? And Tubman?”
Put like that, it’s not hard to see why no one trusts the place.
President William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, who served a 27-year term, had the place built in the early 1960s. In 1964, he moved in. He had seven relatively peaceful years there before dropping dead in 1971 at the age of 75.
Because few people will accept that Liberians can die of natural causes, many attributed Mr. Tubman’s death to a prophecy from Wilhelmina Bryant-Dukuly, known as Mother Dukuly, who had publicly warned Mr. Tubman that if he allowed a knife of any sort to touch his body, he would die.
Mr. Tubman didn’t pay heed to Mother Dukuly and allowed doctors in London to operate on him for prostate cancer. He died.
Next up was Mr. Tolbert. After a brief nine-year reign, Mr. Tolbert was attacked in the dark of night by soldiers of his own army, led by then Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, in the previously mentioned long creepy hallway of the Mansion’s residential quarters.
The soldiers fired three bullets into Mr. Tolbert, then gouged out his right eye and, finally, disemboweled him. They arrested his first lady, Victoria Tolbert, and the children. And they executed Mr. Tolbert’s cabinet members by firing squad on a beach not far from the Mansion.
A tunnel to the sea that had been installed under the Mansion to help residents escape from just that kind of stuff could not provide the intended refuge that night because the elevator wasn’t working.
Mr. Doe assumed the presidency and took up residence at the Mansion. Liberians say he put alligators into the basement to feed people to, but Mrs. Sirleaf insists that when she became president and sent workers down to find out, there was no alligator feeding pit.
“Just the tunnel,” she said.
But one sixth-floor window that security guards say people were routinely pushed out of remains. Unsurprisingly, people avoid it.
In any event, Mr. Doe lasted 10 years, until 1990. The culprit in his downfall was Prince Johnson, who came in fourth in this month’s presidential elections. Back in 1990, Mr. Johnson was a warlord, the head of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, and gunning for President Doe.
Mr. Doe had barricaded himself in the Mansion for months as fighting to topple his regime raged. On Sept. 9, 1990, the day he stepped foot outside the Mansion to go visit some international peacekeeping troops, Mr. Johnson’s forces struck.
They captured Mr. Doe during a firefight and took him to their lair. Mr. Johnson then videotaped himself drinking a beer while his forces cut off Mr. Doe’s ears. Another video, taken hours later, ends with Mr. Doe saying, “No, please, not my penis.”
Years of civil war ensued, and in 1997 the warlord Charles Taylor was elected president. He had foolishly moved into the Mansion even before getting elected. And in October 1996 he paid the price — at least, his bodyguards did — when attackers showed up to try to kill him. Seven of Mr. Taylor’s bodyguards lost their lives, including one who covered Mr. Taylor with his own body in the bathtub.
Mr. Taylor would eventually be run out of town in 2003, and, after that, convicted of war crimes. He is serving his 50-year sentence in a British prison.
Given the building’s history, few Liberians blame Mrs. Sirleaf for not moving in. She lives instead in a bright, heavily guarded seaside villa in the Fish Market neighborhood of Monrovia, where she can do her morning swims in her pool in peace.
Meanwhile, the construction crews continue to work to fix up the Mansion for the next president. Mrs. Sirleaf said she wished her successor the best in his new home.