The Acholi are a Nilotic ethnic group of Luo peoples, who are said to have come to northern Uganda from the area now known as Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 South Sudan134,000[2]
Acholi, English
Christianity and Islam[3]
Related ethnic groups
Other Nilotic peoples
Especially other Luo peoples

The Acholi people (also spelled Acoli) are a Nilotic ethnic group of Luo peoples (also spelled Lwo), 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, Pader and Omoro District. The Acholi were estimated to number 2.3 million people[1] and over 45,000 more were living in South Sudan in 2000.[4]


Opoka speaking Acholi.

Main article: Acholi language

The Acholi dialect is a Western Nilotic language, classified as Luo (or Lwo). It has similarity with Alur, Padhola language, and other Luo languages in South Sudan Shilluk, Anuak,Pari, Balanda, Boor, Thuri. Then in Kenya and Tanzania are the Joluo also known as the Luo.

The Song of Lawino, one of the most successful African literary works, was written by Okot p'Bitek, published in 1966 in Acholi, and later translated to English.


Acholiland, Uganda

Acholiland or "Acoli-land" (also known as the Acholi sub-region) is a necessarily inexact ethnolinguistic taxonomy that refers to the region traditionally inhabited by the Acholi. In the administrative structure of Uganda, Acholi is composed of the districts of:

  1. Agago
  2. Amuru
  3. Gulu
  4. Kitgum
  5. Lamwo
  6. Nwoya
  7. Pader
  8. Omoro

It encompasses about 28,500 km2 (11,000 square miles) near the Uganda-Sudan border.[5]

Its current population is estimated to be around 2.155,000 individuals, or six percent of the total national population.[6][7] While Acholi also lives north of the South Sudanese border, the Sudanese Acholi are often excluded from the political meaning of the term "Acholiland".

The word 'Acholi' is a misnomer that became adopted for convenience over the years. It refers to people known locally as Luo Gang. That is why the Lango neighbours refer to the Acholi as Ugangi, meaning people of the home.


See also: Luo peoples

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.[8] 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'.[9]

Their traditional communities were organised hamlets of circular huts with high peaked roofs, 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 were 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.[10]

Due to a changing economy, after the 1950s, fewer Acholi was recruited to the armed forces but continued to be associated with them in popular mythology and stereotypes.[11]

In the 2000s, James Ojent Latigo described some of Uganda's social problems as based on the way the political elites have used ethnicities to divide the country. He has noted that the emphasis on the distinction among ethnic groups has even been part of the internal government dialogue." He wrote, "Part of the structural causes of the conflict in Uganda has been explained as rooted in the 'diversity of ethnic groups which were at different levels of socio-economic development and political organisation.' (Ugandan Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs 1997.)[11]

He has written further,

"Since independence in 1962, Uganda has been plagued by ethnically driven, politically manipulated violence referred to by some as a history of 'cycles of revenge and mistrust'. Deep-rooted divisions and polarization remain between different ethnic groups, and these have been greatly exacerbated by the way in which the country’s leadership has developed since independence."[11]

Milton Obote, the first leader after independence, relied on Acholi Luo people and Langi Nilo Hamites or Ateker peoples in government. Idi Amin was also from north Uganda, but was of the Kakwa people. He overthrew Obote's government and established a dictatorship, ultimately suppressing and killing 300,000 people, including many Acholi.[12] General Tito Okello was an Acholi, and came to power in a military coup. He was defeated in January 1986. Despite the years of leadership by men from the North, that region continued to be marginalized economically after independence, and has suffered higher rates of poverty than other areas of the country.[13]

After defeating Okello and his Acholi-dominated Uganda National Liberation Army, now-President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army conducted revenge killings in the north. Museveni has held absolute power since 1986,[14] surviving unrest, civil war, and numerous attempts at coups.[12]

The Acholi are known to the outside world mainly because of the long insurgency of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, an Acholi from Gulu. The activities of the LRA have been devastating within Acholiland (though they spread also to neighbouring districts and countries). In September 1996, the Ugandan government moved hundreds of thousands of Acholi from the Gulu district into camps, ostensibly for their protection. Since 1996 this policy has expanded to encompass the entire rural Acholi population of four districts, one million people.[15] These camps had some of the highest mortality rates in the world, with an estimated 1,000 people dying per week at one point. Malaria and AIDS have been the primary disease causes of deaths.[16] The refugees in the camps have also been subject to raids by both LRA and government forces.[12]

At the height of the insurgency, 1.8 million people in the north were living in camps.[12] Peace talks beginning in 2005 promised some relief to these people, and some camps were closed in 2007 as security in the north improved. As of September 2009, large numbers of Acholi people remained in camps as internally displaced persons. The long civil war in the North destroyed much of their society.

The majority of elected members of parliament in the Acholi sub-region are members of the opposition.[citation needed]


According to the 2002 Census of Uganda an estimated 72.3% of Acholi are Roman Catholic, 23.6% are Anglican, 1.7% are Pentecostal and 0.8% are Muslim.[17]

According to Latigo, prior to colonialism, "the Acholi people maintained a traditional government that was rooted firmly in their religious beliefs, norms, and customs, which demanded peace and stability in Acholiland at all times, based on their philosophy of life. This structure was maintained by the real anointed chiefs of the Acholi, the rwodi moo."[18] Although they were believed to have supernatural powers, the chiefs ruled through a Council of Clan Elders, so they never ruled singlehandedly. The council's representatives could mediate issues between clans, and essentially covered both civil and criminal functions, like a Supreme Court. It was a system of governance fully integrated with their religion and cosmology.

It was not until 1995 that a constitutional reform recognized such cultural leaders, but they have not been fully restored to previous powers, as so much of society has changed. In the pre-colonial era, all the Acholi believed in the same superior being, YA Latwer. Killing of a person was prohibited but if it took place, negotiations for blood money were led by the victim's family, with agreement followed by rituals of a reconciliation ceremony to restore the killer to the community, and to bring peace between clans.[19] In addition, the people have important rituals for cleansing homes and sites, to welcome back people who have been away a long time, to clear spirits from places where killings have occurred, and to welcome people who have been captive.

The system values peace over justice, and has retributive and restorative aspects.[20] Most of the LRA returnees, numbering 12,000, underwent nyono tong gweno ('stepping on the egg') after returning to their home villages, to help restore them to home.[21] It is important because it is intended to restore communities to balance, and to bring people back into relation in their home communities, where ideally they would return at the end of the war. Purifications or atonement practices are still performed by Acholi elders in some communities.[22]

The religious leaders have tried to help end the conflict in the country of the last two decades and to reconcile the parties. "In 1997, the Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, and later the Orthodox religious leaders of Acholi formalized their increasing cooperation on peace issues by setting up the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative (ARLPI)."[23] They have continued to work to end the war through negotiation. Kitgum, Pader and Gulu, the three districts of the Acholi sub-region, each established peace forums for continuing discussions. In addition, the peace forums have worked to help establish the Amnesty Commission. They have also "played a vital role in Acholi traditional reconciliation processes and in preparing the community to receive former combatants."[24] In discussing the peace talks of 2005–2007, Latigo noted leaders who called for a revival of the traditional processes of the indigenous people by which they worked for accountability and justice, namely, mato oput. Ruhakana Rugunda, the Ugandan minister of internal affairs and leader of the government negotiating team, noted the effectiveness of the traditional system. He and others have suggested it could help the nation more than adopting the Western system of the International Criminal Court at The Hague (although some charges had already been filed against LRA leaders in 2005 there.[25]

Lamogi Rebellion

Acholi Civil war (1986-1989)

In January 1986, the junta government of Gen. Tito Okello-Lutwa in Uganda was overthrown by Museveni and his NRA rebels. Tito and Bazilio, who were Acholi by tribe, fled the country into exile. Soon after, the NRM started pacifying the northern region, which is home to several ethnics, including the Acholi and Lango.[26][27]

The attempt to pacify the Northern Uganda was carried out recklessly with much brutality and unprofessionalism from the NRA soldiers and government.[26] This resulted in resistance building up in the region and soon a host of rebel groups sprang up in the north. Most prominent among them was the Uganda People's Army (UPA) in Teso and Lango sub region, the West Nile Bank Frontiers (WNBF) in the West Nile region, the Uganda People's Democratic Army, the Holy Spirit Movement and the LRA in the Acholi region. These rebellions sprung up in defiance and from disapproval of the conduct and legitimacy of the new NRA government.[28]

Some of the groups in Acholi, like the UPDA, detested the Museveni regime because it had overthrown the government in which they served. They were also against the power consolidation approach of the NRA, which included mass arrest, torturing, killing, cattle raiding, food crop destruction, and looting and burning of villages.[29][30]

The NRA managed to defeat all the rebel groups except the LRA which culminated in a 20-year conflict. At the peak of the conflict, 90% of the Acholi population moved into IDP camps designed as protected villages. The camps caused misery and suffering—with a conservative death toll of 1,000 people a week.[29] Conservative approaches estimates that at least 300,000 people died in the conflict that extended into the Sudan, Congo and Central African Republic.[31]

In popular culture

In 2012 the American charity Invisible Children produced a documentary about the LRA. The documentary was met with mixed reactions, with many people familiar with the situation dubbing it a shallow and money-grabbing scheme.[29] However, it successfully popularised the LRA in the West.[29]

In 2016, the multi award-winning film, A Brilliant Genocide was produced. It was filmed by Australian director Ebony Butler, Simon Hardwidge and Ugandan author Frey Onen. The documentary focused on the unofficial discourse of the LRA war and it was largely critical of the Ugandan government role in the LRA war.[32] The Acholi people have many proverbs and each have a distinct meaning.[33]

Notable Acholi people



  1. ^ a b c "Acholi of Uganda". People Groups. International Mission Board. 1 September 2023.
  2. ^ "Acholi of South Sudan". People Groups. International Mission Board. Retrieved 22 March 2023.[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ "Population composition" (PDF). Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  4. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (ed.). "Acholi." Ethnologue: Languages of the World. SIL International, September, 2010. Accessed 10 March 2011.
  5. ^ Atkinson, Ronald R. "The Evolution of Ethnicity among the Acholi of Uganda: The Precolonial Phase." Ethnohistory 1989: 36(1), p. 20).
  6. ^ Doom, Ruddy and Koen Vlassenroot. "Kony's Message: A New Koine?". Africa Affairs 1999: 98(390), p. 7).
  7. ^ " - Acholi of Uganda". Retrieved 7 January 2024.
  8. ^ Webster 1970.
  9. ^ Atkinson (1994).
  10. ^ "Lt Gen Bazilio: The 1985 coup top dog". Monitor. 9 January 2021. Retrieved 7 January 2024.
  11. ^ a b c James Ojent Latigo, Chapter 4: "Northern Uganda tradition-based practices in the Acholi region, 1. The conflict", pp. 85-89, June 2006
  12. ^ a b c d "Uganda: Minorities: Acholi", World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, accessed 3 May 2013
  13. ^ Latigo (2006), "Northern Uganda", p. 90-92
  14. ^ "Yoweri Museveni | Biography, Profile, Election, & Facts | Britannica". 5 January 2024. Retrieved 7 January 2024.
  15. ^ Branch, A. 2008. "Against Humanitarian Impunity: Rethinking Responsibility for Displacement and Disaster in Northern Uganda," Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 2(2): 151-173
  16. ^ UGANDA: 1,000 displaced die every week in war-torn north - report | Uganda | Refugees/IDPs, IRIN Africa
  17. ^ "Population composition" (PDF). Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  18. ^ Latigo (2006), "Northern Uganda", pp. 102-104
  19. ^ Latigo (2006), "Northern Uganda", p. 104
  20. ^ Latigo (2006), "Northern Uganda", p. 108
  21. ^ Latigo (2006), "Northern Uganda", p. 106
  22. ^ Twesigye, K., Emmanuel (2010). Religion, Politics and Cults in East Africa.
  23. ^ Latigo, "Northern Uganda", p. 97
  24. ^ Latigo, "Northern Uganda", p. 98
  25. ^ New Vision, 1 June 2007
  26. ^ a b Wegner, Patrick S. (2015). The International Criminal Court in Ongoing Intrastate Conflicts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/cbo9781107706811. ISBN 978-1-107-70681-1.
  27. ^ Gissel, Line Engbo (19 January 2018). The International Criminal Court and Peace Processes in Africa. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315102382. ISBN 978-1-315-10238-2.
  28. ^ Behrend, Heike. (1999). Alice Lakwena & the holy spirits : war in Northern Uganda, 1985-97. J. Currey. ISBN 978-1-78204-984-5. OCLC 653038964.
  29. ^ a b c d "The Anguish of Northern Uganda - Section 1 - Uganda". ReliefWeb. 2 October 1997. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  30. ^ "The Anguish of Northern Uganda - Section 1 - Uganda". ReliefWeb. 2 October 1997. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  31. ^ Atkinson, Ronald Raymond, 1944- (2009). From Uganda to the Congo and beyond : pursuing the Lord's Resistance Army. International Peace Institute. OCLC 471877660.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  32. ^ Okumu, F. Wafula (16 July 2019). Kaiser, Paul J; Okumu, F. Wafula (eds.). Democratic Transitions in East Africa. doi:10.4324/9780429262401. ISBN 9780429262401. S2CID 152677498.
  33. ^ African 671, University of Wisconsin-Madison Students in. "Acholi Proverbs and Idioms". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)

Further reading

Media related to Acholi people at Wikimedia Commons