The Acholi

The people of Kalongo are Acholi.

The Acholi people (also spelled Acoli) are a Luo nation found in Magwi County in South Sudan and Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), including the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo, and Pader. Approximately 1.47 million Acholi were counted in the Uganda census of 2014, and 45,000 more were living in South Sudan in 2000.

The presumed nominal forebears of the present-day Acholi group migrated South to Northern Uganda from the area now known as Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan by about 1,000 AD. Starting in the late seventeenth century, a new sociopolitical order developed among the Luo of Northern Uganda, mainly characterized by the formation of chiefdoms headed by Rwodi (sg. Rwot, ‘ruler’). The chiefs traditionally came from one clan, and each chiefdom had several villages made up of different patrilineal clans. By the mid-nineteenth century, about 60 small chiefdoms existed in eastern Acholiland. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Arabic-speaking traders from the north started to call them Shooli, a term which was transformed into ‘Acholi’.

Their traditional communities were organised hamlets of circular huts with high peaked rooves, furnished with a mud sleeping-platform, jars of grain and a sunken fireplace. Women daubed the walls with mud, decorating them with geometrical or conventional designs in red, white or grey. The men were skilled hunters, using nets and spears. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle. The women have accomplished agriculturists, growing and processing a variety of food crops, including millet, simsim, groundnuts, peas, sorghum and vegetables. In war, the men used spears and long, narrow shields of giraffe or ox hide.

During Uganda’s colonial period, the British encouraged political and economic development in the south of the country, in particular among the Baganda. In contrast, the Acholi and other northern ethnic groups supplied much of the national manual labour and came to comprise a majority of the military, creating what some have called a “military ethnocracy”.

Many of the Acholi soldiers who joined the Kings African Rifles (KAR), the British colonial army, were deployed to the frontlines in southeast Asia especially in Singapore and Burma during the World War II where they held British positions against an intense Japanese offensive. Notable among the Acholi soldiers who made the ranks were Gen. Tito Okello-Lutwa, Brig. Pyerino Okoya and Lt. Gen Bazilio Olara-Okello.

Historical context

Acholi have played a pivotal role in the turbulent post-independence era. Milton Obote, the independence leader, relied heavily on the support of his fellow Luo-speakers – Acholi and Langi – in government. Similarly, General Okello Lutwa who toppled the Obote II regime, was an Acholi. But when Idi Amin overthrew Obote’s first spell in power, and when Yoweri Musevini ousted Okello, the Acholi paid heavily for their allegiances. Under Amin’s brutal regime, an estimated 300,000 died – many of them Acholi. Similarly, when Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) took power in 1986, there were revenge killings and looting of livestock in the north of the country.

In 1986 Alice Lakwena’s charismatic Holy Spirit Movement mounted an insurgency in the Acholi region. This has continued in various guises ever since. From the Holy Spirit Movement, the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Acholi Joseph Kony, emerged. His stated political aims are to rule Uganda according to the Biblical Ten Commandments. The cult-like militia has abducted an estimated 25,000 children over the years, forcing them to commit heinous atrocities against civilians. In response, Museveni’s government forced 1.4 to 1.9 million civilians into camps where they ostensibly were to be protected by the Ugandan army. Yet the northerners living in these squalid camps were prone to attack by the LRA and the national army alike, and unable to raise their own food. The LRA received much of its financial, logistical and military support from the Khartoum government in neighbouring Sudan.

With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan in 2005, and the establishment of the ex-rebel government in newly independent South Sudan in territory in which the LRA once operated freely, those lines of support have been substantially weakened, if not severed altogether. In 2005, the new International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and other top LRA commanders. The combination of the two events, have put pressure on the LRA to lay down its arms.

Peace negotiations to end the long-running rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army continued, while security in the north improved through 2007. The civil war devastated the lives – and livelihoods – of the Acholi people of the north. At the height of the insurgency, some 1.8 million people were living in camps in the north, and due to a combination of LRA activities and the Ugandan army’s counter-offensives virtually the entire population of Acholiland was displaced. Since Ugandan forces pushed the LRA out of Northern Uganda, the majority were able to return to their homes, though without much in the way of government support.

Current issues
Since the Lord’s Resistance Army was largely pushed out of Northern Uganda, the majority of Acholi – more than 80 per cent – have been able to return to their homes. Nevertheless, many remain in a state of displacement. Acholi Quarter in Kampala, for example, is largely populated by formerly rural Acholi from Northern Uganda, uprooted by years of conflict and now caught in a situation of prolonged displacement. Though some sense of a community and identity has persisted among residents, the area is characterized by substandard housing, poor environmental health and limited livelihood opportunities.

Customary leadership of the Acholi was severely affected by the long conflict in Northern Uganda, when many Acholi people lived in IDP camps for as long as 20 years. During this time, people were separated from their land for long periods, and many people disappeared or were killed. When the camps were disbanded and people began to return to their land, customary rules for land tenure did not necessarily have the answers to some of the problems faced by Acholi people: men had lost their fathers from whom they would be granted land; children did not know where their clan land was; women were ‘married’ to men without following the customary rules for marriage because of a lack of resources; and women were widowed and left with few options for survival. In such a context, the land rights of those with the least power – widows, the disabled, the elderly – were very insecure. As a result, many widowed Acholi have been unable to access their land on return to their homes.

Customs may reinforce social justifications for inequitable land rights for men and women. For example, among Acholi, husbands pay a bride price to their wives’ fathers, and this payment supports the traditional belief that women are the ‘property’ of the husband, since a payment was made for her. This belief underlies the customary land tenure rule that prohibits women from having rights to land independent of their relationship with their father or husband. Acholi men say, ‘Property can’t own property’, and the notion of women having independent land rights is an anomaly to them.