The Acholi


The Acholi or Acoli are a western Nilotic people who live in southern Sudan, Uganda, and northern Kenya. They are most closely related to the Luo of Kenya and the Shilluk of Sudan. They number around 2 million, with the largest number, over 746,000, living in Uganda. Their name Acholi comes from the term 19th-century Arab traders gave them, Shuˆli, meaningspeakingamixofArabicwith another language.

The Acholi believe they moved into their current homeland some 300 years ago from the north. They began to coalesce into the Acholi as an identifiable group in the 17th century, and today there are six main subdivisions of the Acholi as well as three main ethnic groups: the Patiko (related to the Luo), the Ateker-speakers (who seem to have migrated earlier), and the Sudanic-speakers (who came from the west). Arab and Swahili slave traders from Zanzibar arrived in the 19th century, and the Acholi suffered greatly at their hands.

Acholi villages were raided and burned, high numbers were enslaved, and local economies subsequently suffered because people fled to escape further raids.Like most other Nilotes, Acholi life and culture revolve around their cattle. Until the 19th century, they possessed large herds, but diseases introduced by Euro-peans and raids by neighbors have greatly reduced the numbers of their cattle.Subsequent droughts in the 1980s and 1990s have put a great deal of stress on their ability to remain pastoralists.

The Acholi have made an effort to use their rather remote location to resist change. They are the least economically developed and least acculturated of Uganda’s people. Nonetheless, the Acholi have had large numbers of men serving in the Ugandan army.

The Acholi were severely punished during the rule of Idi Amin (1971–1979) for their service in the colonial army and for their support for President Milton Obote (1964–1971). Idi Amin became suspicious of Acholi soldiers, officers, and civilian leaders following an attempt in 1972 to restore ousted president Obote. Acholi sol-diers were massacred in their barracks, and by the end of his purge, some 5,000 Acholi had been killed.

The Acholi have become important far beyond their mere numbers because of the Lord’s Resistance Army, founded by Alice Auma in 1986. Auma became a spirit medium after she was possessed by the spiritLakwenaandtookthenameAlice Lakwena. Her movement began as a reli-gious movement called the Holy Spirit Movement. The movement is directly con-nected with the defeat of the Acholi general Tito Okelo, who briefly was president of Uganda as the result of a coup.

However, Okelo was driven from office and his Acholi soldiers fled back to their homeland, and subsequently the Acholi homeland was occupied by southern Ugandans. After a series of local victories, Alice Lakwena began a march to Kampala that was joined by other ethnic groups with grievances against the Museveni government, but the Ugandan army firmly defeated them in a battle outside of Kampala. Alice claimed that Lakwena then left her, and she fled to a refugee camp in northern Kenya where she died in 2007.

Themovement livesoninUgandaled by Joseph Kony. He has similar claims to Auma of being possessed by spirits that direct his actions. Using symbols from tra-ditional belief, Christianity, and on occa-sion Acholi nationalism, Kony has been able to resist the central state and spread fear beyond the borders of Uganda. He has an army of child soldiers, most of whom he has kidnapped from their home villages. The total of his strength is not known and guesses range from only 500 to up to 3,000 soldiers.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Behrend, Heike, Mitch Cohen, and John Middleton. Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda, 1985–1997. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

Otiso, Kefa. Culture and Customs of Uganda.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Twesigye, Emmanuel. Religion, Politics, and Cults in East Africa: God, Warriors and Saints, vol. 11. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.