Complexities of Identity: Clan, Chiefdom, and Ethnic Group Identity in Northern Uganda
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethnicity (referred interchangeably here with identity) as the “status in respect of membership of a group regarded as ultimately of common descent or having a common national or cultural tradition.”(1) Such a definition results in complex implications when a person has multiple and overlapping origins and traditions. Moreover, it raises the question of how a common descent or tradition is even determined. What common origins are considered too remote or too recent to define a shared identity? Also, who is allowed to define this identity? Each of these questions arise when attempting to define the identity of the Acholi people. For example, why is it that, in the case of Paimol, its people are grouped under the same Acholi identity as those living in Gulu, several hours away, when, at the same time, they are also considered distinct from their nearby Karamojong neighbors? Interesting features of Acholi identity such as this are the result of multiple factors created by different actors across several hundred years.
The concept of Acholi as a singular identity is relatively recent. When the chiefdoms of the area began to develop in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, they were not only completely independent of each other, but the people of each chiefdom did not see themselves as sharing a common identity with each other. Within each chiefdom were also various clans, which, despite having dissimilar origins, found a common identity with each other. The origins of Paimol reflect these characteristics, as recorded by historian Ronald Atkinson in his study of the origins of the Acholi people. Paimol was established during the 1720s by its first chief and namesake, Omol, who was, in fact, an outsider of the region, being of Paluo origin. After reaching the area, Omol met the Taa Clan, who had settled there previously. Thus, when Omol established Paimol, he incorporated the Taa and another related clan, Atura, into his chiefdom. The other clans that were subsequently brought under the chiefdom were both from the region and from regions as far away as those now classified under different ethnic groups.(2) Thus, an interesting dynamic appears between an individual chiefdom having mixed origins and its people still considering themselves as having a distinct identity from neighboring chiefdoms whose locations are much closer to them than the regional origins of some of their own clans. A separate study by Charles Amone and Okullu Muura points out that a chief had only as much power as his chiefdom’s clan leaders, and that, as a result, decisions could only be made with the approval of these leaders.(3) Thus, the clans still retained their separate identity while also adopting the more general identity of their chiefdom.
Despite their distinctive origins, Atkinson states that by the 19th century, the chiefdoms of the present-day Acholi people became more jointly identified. However, the causes were largely external.When Arab traders, known as the Kutoria, arrived in the mid-1800s, they paid no attention to the distinctions between the different chiefdoms but instead classified them as a common ethnic group based on their shared language, an identity which eventually became solidified under the name Acholi by the time of the arrival of the British later on in the century. Nevertheless, Atkinson notes that “the primary sociopolitical unit continued to be the individual chiefdom,” and that “there are certainly no examples from the period of Acholi-wide organization, cooperation, or other activities of any sort.”(4) Unlike, the clans, which were defined by their larger chiefdoms in which they actively participated, the simple grouping of people under a common tribal name was nothing more than an artificial identity. If different chiefdoms had no reason to be connected to each other, than they would remain separate regardless of this being ignored by outsiders.
The continued distinctiveness between chiefdoms continued after the arrival of the British but before Northern Uganda was fully brought under colonial control. During my research in Paimol, I found this separation reflected in the specific history of the chiefdom. I met with one of Paimol’s cultural directors (age 70), whose role is to pass down the region’s traditional history, which is told through song and dance, to children. He himself learned these histories from the wife of Ogal, the favored warrior of Paimol’s last chief before British rule. He mentioned that during the time of this chief, which was around the start of the 20th century, Paimol was much smaller in order for the chiefdom to mobilize quickly if any of the neighboring chiefdoms were to attack, which was a common occurrence. These small-scale fights with other chiefdoms are confirmed in the traditional stories that he teaches younger generations. For example, the song “Lweny pa Jo Kabala ki Paimol” recounts a fight with the neighboring Kabala chiefdom after the latter raided the former’s cattle, and the song “Lweny pa Jo Omiya ki Kabala” recounts a fight between the Omiya and Kabala chiefdoms, in which Paimol assisted the former.(5) Thus, despite being labeled under a common identity by outsiders, the Acholi people overwhelmingly saw their identity to be first and foremost their clan and chiefdom.
However, by the 1910s, the British, while in the process of solidifying their control of Uganda, further forced the Acholi identity onto the chiefdoms. The British colonial government set up indirect rule through the Acholi chiefs, making them servants of the state. Chiefs who resisted, such as Paimol’s, were suppressed militarily.(6) Furthermore, all the chiefdoms were placed under one administrative “Acholi District,” with each chiefdom adopting their new designation as sub-counties.(7) Thus, not only was the Acholi identity solidified during this time, but also a British one as well.
When the British identity of Ugandans was officially removed at independence in 1962, the other identities that the British created, such as Acholi, remained. While one’s clan and chiefdom are still important identifiers, the ethnic group has taken a prominent place in a modern Ugandan identity. Thus, the people of Paimol have a common identity with those in Gulu but not their Karamojong neighbors.
Can such a perspective be changed? The Kudeng clan of Paimol, which is in charge of several important sacred rituals and practices for the chiefdom, was originally from Karamoja. This connection seemingly demonstrates a common identity between Paimol and the neighboring Karamojong people, especially as this clan is one of multiple in the chiefdom who can trace their origins back to Karamoja. However, just as the Acholi people were developing their chiefdoms at the time the Kudeng arrived at Paimol, Karamojong society was also developing.(8) That the Kudeng thus missed the development of Karamojong society while at the same time participated in the parallel development of the Acholi chiefdoms makes the connection between the Kudeng and the Karamojong possibly too far removed.
Nevertheless, a common identity may not need to be created for friendly relations. Despite being of two different ethnic groups, the Acholi people of Paimol and the Karamojong people once had a close friendship through the sharing of cattle grazing land up to 1986 at the start of the civil war. Thus, while the question of identity in Northern Uganda has a complex answer involving clan, chiefdom, and ethnic group, it does not necessarily have to be a force of separation. Just as different clans work together under one chiefdom and different chiefdoms under one ethnic group, the potential for improved intertribal relations is also present.
- Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “ethnicity, n., sense 2, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/5152233166.
- Ronald R. Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2010), 146-151.
- Charles Amone and Okullu Muura, “British Colonialism and the Creation of Acholi Ethnic Identity in Uganda,1894 to 1962,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 42, no. 2 (2014): 242, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03086534.2013.851844.
- Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda, 269-272.
- Interview With a Paimol Cultural Director (age 70), Paimol, Uganda, 19 June 2023.
- Patrick Otim, “The fate of a transitional chief in colonial Acholiland: Iburaim Lutanyamoi Awich, 1850s–1946,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 55, no. 1 (2021): 70, DOI: 10.1080/00083968.2020.1722188.
- Amone and Muura, “British Colonialism and the Creation of Acholi Ethnic Identity in Uganda,1894 to 1962,” 251.
- Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda, 264.