From the Village to Entebbe: The Acholi of Northern Uganda and the Politics of Identity, 1950-1985.
Date: 3 February 2014
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in History
Abstract The aim of this thesis will be to decipher why Acholi ethnic identity remained such a critical political tool in late and post-colonial Uganda, from 1950-1985, just before the outbreak of civil war in 1986. The thesis will centre not on the inevitability of the war, but will instead focus on the political processes that ...
Abstract The aim of this thesis will be to decipher why Acholi ethnic identity remained such a critical political tool in late and post-colonial Uganda, from 1950-1985, just before the outbreak of civil war in 1986. The thesis will centre not on the inevitability of the war, but will instead focus on the political processes that preceded it. It will seek fill a gap in a historiography of a people whose contribution to the Ugandan nation state goes beyond that of collective suffering, violence, paramilitary warfare and ethnic conflict. To effectively do this there will be an assessment of how Acholi gender, class and social hierarchies, religious identities, regional identifications and the much-touted ‘martial’ identity have been utilised internally and externally to politically reinforce Acholi ethnicity in late-colonial and post-colonial Uganda. Ugandan political engagement has continually allowed the politics of ethnicity to take a centre stage. Even in the present day, Uganda remains ethnically and regionally divided between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. Bantu-speaking ethnic groups in the southern, central and western Uganda, including the Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu, Banyoro, Batoro, and Banyankole, dominate the South. The North, which is home to the Nilotic groups, encompasses the Acholi, Lango, Madi, Alur, Iteso, and the Karamojong peoples. Historically, the political and ethnic divisions between the peoples of Northern and Southern Uganda have contributed to the country’s contentious post-colonial history. This thesis will argue that political hostilities between the peoples of the two regions were a by-product of the economic and political policies of the colonial government and the administrations that followed. Regional demarcations, sanctioned by the British and adopted by post-colonial regimes, reinforced strong ethnically divided local governments founded on pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Acholi socio-political institutions. Economic underdevelopment played a large part in fostering political tensions between Northern and Southern Uganda and served as useful tool for Acholi power brokers to negotiate for political and economic capital with the state, by utilising the politics of regional differentiation through the ‘Northern identity.’ Consequently, with onset of decolonisation Ugandan ‘nationalism’ became a localised movement driven by ethnically homogenous local governments and kingdoms. For the Acholi ethnic group, the most visible of their colonial and post-colonial identities has been that of the ‘martial race’. Acholi soldiers joined the army largely as a means to access job opportunities, and by doing so they became the representatives of state coercion and violence. Yet those that joined did not do so to deliberately suppress other ethnic groups: rather employment opportunities were limited in the locality and the army corps provided access to economic and social mobility. Despite being the most visible identity nationally, the ‘martial identity’ has not been the most dominant locally, or even the driving force within the Acholi polity in the last thirty-five years. Acholi late-colonial and post-colonial history has been informed by the historical processes that have shaped the relationship between the Acholi ‘moral ethnicity’ and ‘political tribalism’. The latter provided an opportunity for politically minded Acholi to participate within national politics, yet the former kept them tied to the locality. As the political representation of the Acholi outside the region ‘political tribalism’ was combative, utilising religious, clan, and regional identities to make demands against the state. The prominence of ethnopolitics within national politics ensured that within the repertoire of the Acholi ‘cultural tool kit’, ethnopolitics remained the dominant tool for external political engagement.
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