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. 


  1. Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “ethnicity, n., sense 2,
  2. Ronald R. Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda (Kampala:  Fountain Publishers, 2010), 146-151. 
  3. 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, 
  4. Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda, 269-272. 
  5. Interview With a Paimol Cultural Director (age 70), Paimol, Uganda, 19 June 2023. 
  6. 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. 
  7. Amone and Muura, “British Colonialism and the Creation of Acholi Ethnic Identity in  Uganda,1894 to 1962,” 251. 
  8. Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda, 264.
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