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Appendix: Civilian Jeeps in the Congo

1946-2017


 

The Jeep was not exclusively a military vehicle in the Congo, even if it did not achieve nearly the same success in civilian life. On the face of it this might seem strange, considering the poor state of the Congolese road network. Nevertheless, a fair number of Jeeps of various version did enter the Congolese civil register and the illustrations below only provide a few samples of their varied uses over the years.

Colonial Administration

The civilian colonial administration of the Belgian Congo did, quite naturally, find various uses for the Jeep in its service. Many of the Jeeps presumably came from the assembly lines in Belgium. The Jeep was never a particularly common vehicle in colonial service, however.

An early and rather surprising use of the Jeep in the Congo was as a fire engine: clearly a standard factory-supplied CJ-2A Fire Engine conversion. The image is a 1951 still -- unfortunately in black and white -- from the making of the feature film Bongolo and the Black Princess (140K JPEG), which was the first color movie shot in the Congo. In this particular scene Princess Doka is being pursued and captured by the police. Exactly how the fire engine on the railway bank fits into the plot is unknown. (Photo © André Cauvin/ www.cegesoma.be ref.244188)
 

The colonial administration was organized around a large number of local administrators responsible for everything in their districts. They spent a lot of time travelling around and it made sense for Jeeps to be used on occasion, although by no means all administrators had access to four wheel drive vehicles for their work. This CJ-3A photographed at Luebo in the Kasai province (see the Congo map) in mid 1955 carries a registration plate showing it to be a government vehicle, as does the Chevrolet truck, typical of the vehicles usually found on the Congolese roads. (Photo © M. Rossel/ www.cegesoma.be ref.277811)
 

Although the Force Publique, the colonial military, maintained order in the provinces, the cities and larger towns had their own police forces. Snapped in the mid 1950s, this CJ-3B belonged to one of the towns in the far northeastern Congo, near Lake Albert. It is noteworthy that it lacks the L-shaped extra indicators seen on Congolese military Jeeps of the period (see Part 1). Hopefully the two policemen at the back -- in white pith helmets and gloves -- were only posing for the photo and did not normally have to travel like that! (Photo © M. Van de Meerssche/www.cegesoma.be ref.149847)
 

Another police CJ-3B, used by the Elisabethville police in 1960 and given limited anti-riot protection -- seemingly intended to protect vulnerable parts of the vehicle rather than the crew! The reason for leaving a vision slot in front of the passenger rather than the driver is also a bit unclear. The Jeep has a chaff screen over the grill, like many contemporary Jeeps in the Congo. At the rear is a policeman wearing a typical uniform of the late colonial period, complete with a red fez (much disliked and abandoned soon after independence). (Photo © MAES/ www.cegesoma.be ref.182975)
 

Private Sector

The Jeep was not particularly popular outside government service. A main reason was likely its limited carrying capacity. The Congolese themselves had virtually no motor vehicles of any description and the foreign settlers in the Congo countryside were almost all connected to either missions or small businesses. These tended to use either normal cars or else small trucks that could move a reasonable number of people and/or quantities of supplies. Even when a four wheel drive vehicle was obtained, the choice often fell on the Land Rover rather than the Jeep -- or on some other European vehicle type.

One business where four wheel drive was relatively common was the safari trade. The Belgian Congo never became as popular a destination as the British colonies in East Africa but it did have some good wildlife parks. Chief among these was Parc National Albert in the northeast, near Lake Albert. It was established in 1925, as the first national park in Africa, and is currently known as Virunga National Park. This shot from Kasenyi in 1957 shows one of the park's very neat and tidy CJ-5s, with a Congolese park employee carrying two long spears in the back. In front of the Jeep is a Minerva TT (a Belgian-made Land Rover), also a common 4WD vehicle in the Congo. (Photo © André Cauvin/www.cegesoma.be ref.256275)
 

There were of course also some Jeeps in private hands. This CJ-3A from the Manono area in Katanga province, 1958, has a custom made roof support structure and also sports an interesting modification to its headlights, apparently to achieve a more concentrated light beam. It may have been used to light up a small aircraft landing strip, of which there were many in the Congo. At a guess, the Jeep is black with red wheels. (Photo © M. Opdebeeck/www.cegesoma.be ref.151606)
 

Monkey business in Katanga province, 1960. The black windshield frame indicates that this is a civilian CJ-3B, rather than one of the many military Jeeps in service in the Congo at the time -- despite having a ventilated windshield. The multiple gauges on the instrument panel suggest that it was built no later than 1957. The purpose of the cylindrical fixture on the dashboard is unknown; it may possibly be some kind of light. (Photo © Julien Bervoets/www.cegesoma.be ref.522343)
 

There weren't many Jeep pickups in the Belgian Congo, but inevitably a few had been imported. The old N'Dolo airport in Leopoldville had this example, in addition to its heavier equipment. The tarp makes it difficult to see what is in the back but it looks like it may have been an unmodified pickup, except for the extra lights and the extinguisher on the side, used to carry some additional loose rescue equipment. The photo is from the first days of the ONUC air units (see Part 8) and in the background a US Air Force C-47 is being repainted in the white livery of the UN. (Photo © Torsten Björklund)
 

The Turbulent Sixties

The series of crisis in the Congo from 1960 to 1967 led to a huge disruption of all civilian life. The economy was in constant decline and many foreigners fled the country. Roads and other infrastructure deteriorated steadily and imports fell drastically. Maintenance of vehicles suffered greatly due to lack of qualified mechanics and spare parts and many civilian vehicles were also stolen and destroyed by various military factions. Even so, some civilian Jeeps still graced the roads and there was a trickle of new ones as well.

Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and Brazzaville are closer to each other than any other capitals in the world, being in sight of each other across the Congo River. The old French Congo remained relatively calm in the 1960s and ferries constantly shuttled back and forth. Congolia 9 was one of the small car ferries in use, and on the right in this 1962 photo, next to a couple of Citroen 2CVs, is a civilian CJ-3B. Judging from the size and shape of the licence plate on its grille, it was registered in the Congo Republic, i.e. the former French Congo.

Another civilian CJ-3B which rode the ferries belonged to Canadian diplomat David Nixon -- see A Jeep Called "I Presume" on CJ3B.info.
 

The large N'Djili airport in Leopoldville saw a very varied stream of visiting aircraft in the 1960s, both civilian and military. This Lockheed NC-121 (or EC-121) Warning Star of the US Naval Research Laboratory made a rare stop in 1963. In the background are DC-4s and a DC-3 of Air Congo and the Congolese Air Force. The bright orange CJ-5 has a Congolese civilian plate and presumably belonged to the airport, although not seen in other airport photos of the period. Just visible on the left is another Jeep, painted white and belonging to the ONUC air unit (see Part 8). (Photo © Ingemar Andersson)
 

The Congo had hundreds of rivers, large and small, and these were only bridged in a few locations. Elsewhere, vehicles had to cross on simple but serviceable ferries, like this one which consists of planks across several dugout canoes. The Jeep Station Wagon and the Land Rover being loaded in the evening light both belonged to the UNICEF, which operated in parallel to the main UN organization in the Congo, ONUC (see Part 6). (Photo © Thorwald Glantz)
 

After independence, the infrastructure in the Congo went downhill quickly as maintenance was often discontinued. Many businesses were abandoned and nature was quick to reclaim the ground, as happened to this gas station. Carrying an extra jerry can or two in one's vehicle became even more important than before. (Photo © Bengt Fredholm)
 

Outside the cities and towns, trade was mainly conducted in village shops that were typically run by Greek settlers, who carried on their business also during the troubled years. They carried anything and everything required in the local communities and sometimes also bought cash crops for resale elsewhere. This is a particularly well-appointed trading post that includes living quarters for the owners. The Jeep outside is a CJ-6 with additional indicators on the front wings, similar to those found on CJ-3Bs built in Belgium. Around the back is a standard Jeep trailer, no doubt used for supply runs. (Photo © Jan Hekker)
 

The town of Bukavu, on Lake Kivu in eastern Congo (see the Congo map) saw the finale of the mercenary rebellion in 1967, the last of the military crisis in the 1960s (see Part 16). This column of European refugees coming into Bukavu shows a typical mix of vehicles from the rural areas, with sprinklings of normal cars, pickups, light trucks and four wheel drive vehicles, including two or three Jeep CJs towards the front. The stake truck is a Jeep Gladiator and so is the light blue pickup in front of the Volkswagens -- only a different model. The smoke comes from the seasonal burns done in many Congolese fields. (Photo © Herbert Lotz)
 

At the end of the battle for Bukavu in late 1967, many houses had been damaged and many vehicles destroyed, even if the number of casualties in the town was relatively low. This civilian CJ-3B -- or possibly CJ-3A; the angle makes it hard to tell -- has been stripped and abandoned outside a burnt-out shop along one of Bukavu's main streets. (Photo © Efrain Morales)
 

1970s and Beyond

The troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaïre from 1971 to 1997) did not end with the 1960s, nor did the history of the Jeep in the Congo. Some of the old Jeeps lived on, and a few no doubt survived into the 2000s. Imports of new Jeeps declined over the years, as cheaper Japanese vehicles became popular instead. Today some new Jeeps can still be seen on the Congolese roads, but now as luxury items rather than as workhorses.

The border between civilian and military was (and is) often fuzzy in the Congo. In 1977 and 1978, Katangese soldiers who had been in exile in Angola for a decade invaded the former Katanga province (renamed Shaba) and captured the mining town of Kolwezi. On both occasions they were ultimately defeated by troops provided to Zaïre from abroad. In May 1978, French paratroopers recaptured Kolwezi for the second time. These FNLC separatists in their commandeered civilian CJ-3A were apparently ambushed by the French, who themselves had brought some Hotchkiss M201s for transport. (Photo © Peter Jordan/Alamy)
 

It is hard to keep a good Jeep down! In 1990, Belgian teacher Pierre Gieling went to Goma in eastern Zaïre to teach at the Belgian School and bought a red CJ-3B from his predecessor (see High Hoods Everywhere on CJ3B.info.) This photo was taken in the Virunga National Park (see earlier on this page).

A second photo shows the Jeep from the front (140K JPEG). The ventilator on the windshield frame, as well as the lack of hood bumpers and the wider spaced indicator lights, show that the Jeep was a late 1970s Avia model made in Spain. (Both photos © Pierre Gieling/ www.chez-pierre.net)
 

A Jeep Wrangler from 2005 or thereabouts, for sale in Kinshasa a decade later, brings the Congolese story into this millennium. It is unlikely that the Jeep will ever again be more than a novelty item in the Congo, however. Some CJ-3B wrecks no doubt still adorn the Congolese landscape but it is doubtful if any of those early Jeeps are still in use, 50 years on.
 


This concludes our series on Jeeps in the Congo. Thank you for sticking with it! -- Leif Hellström

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Thanks to author and researcher Leif Hellström. -- Derek Redmond


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Last updated 3 April 2017 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
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