A new dawn or Acholi Kingdom

One of the biggest aspects of culture is dance. The Acholi have several dances including the royal and courtship dances.

What you need to know:


  • Since colonial times, the Acholi society was a sedentary, agrarian community organised in chiefdoms, varying greatly in size but consisting of a cluster of villages including the surrounding territory used for agriculture and hunting over which the Rwot (King) exercised his authority.
    The villages formed a protected ring around the royal village ‘gang kal'.
  • The Acholi observe an elaborate system of social norms, customs and traditions. Although the colonialists preferred to rank the Acholi among the stateless societies, the Acholi had a system of centralised government.
  • They were organised under chiefdoms each under a hereditary ruler known as Rwot. The Rwot was a central figure and he had executive, judicial and legislative powers. In addition, he was the link between the living and the dead. It was his duty to offer sacrifices to ancestors on behalf of his people.
  • The society possessed chiefly regalia such as drums, spears, and stools. The administrative structures were not well stratified, but the general political organisation could be likened to that of the pre-colonial kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Nkore, Toro and Buhaya states of Karagwe.
  • In fact, the larger chiefdoms such as Payera and Padibe were bigger and more organised than some of the similar pre-colonial kingdoms of the south.
  • Today, the Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot David Onen Achana II, is the cultural head of the Acholi people overseeing all the 54 smaller chiefdoms locally known as ‘ker’ that are spread all over Acholi land.
  • Rwot Achana II, was born in a family of five in 1967 to the late Rwot Justine Achana of the Payira clan, the largest Acholi clan and Ms Peninnah Achaa, of the Bwobo clan.
  • Additional reporting by James Eriku

The Acholi, despite the devastating 20-year-old war have, with the help of their cultural leaders, picked themselves up and embraced the future. Paul Amoru & Cissy Makumbi profile the Acholi Paramount Chief, who is at the centre of this recovery.

As recovery efforts in northern Uganda enter a fourth year, Rwot David Onen Acana II finds his hands full with the weighty task of overseeing the resettlement of his subjects.

His enthronement as the Paramount Chief of Acholi in 2005 hitherto laid upon his shoulders among others the task of ensuring peace in the greater north were over 1.6 million persons were in Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps and tens of thousands had lost their lives.

As a result, belligerence had become the way of living in Acholi sub-region, as its people bore the full brunt of war for over two decades. The population watched the security; economy and morality of their homelands erode year after year, including its cultural institution.However, a lot has changed, and the region is now bracing for sustainable recovery and development.

Saturday Monitor in its coverage of the post-war era in northern Uganda focuses on the reinstated Acholi cultural institution and takes a close look at the profile of the Paramount Chief, the Acholi King.
He was born in the family of five, to the late Rwot Justine Acana of the Payira Clan. His mother is Ms Peninah Acaa of the Bwobo clan.
His Highness Achana says he did not know that he could at one point become the paramount chief of the Acholi until his father died in 2005.
Soon after his father’s death, Achana became the chief not only of his Payira clan but also the paramount chief in Acholi. He is the 25th Paramount chief of Acholi in the lineage.
Rwot Onen Achana II was crowned as the Acholi Paramount Chief on January 15, 2005 at Kaunda Ground in Gulu town at a colourful ceremony witnessed by religious leaders, Acholi MPs, ambassadors from Sweden, USA, Norway, Sudan, China, South Africa and the European Union.

A dressing the congregation, the then young soft-spoken chief strongly emphasised the role of chiefs in peace negotiation and mediation and cautioned his fellow-chiefs to keep away from partisan politics.
Like other people from Acholi sub region, he says the war severely affected his education.
He attended the Holy Rosary Primary School and emerged the second best in the school which booked him a place at St Joseph’s College Layibi for both his O’ and A’ level. Layibi was one of the best schools in the country at the time.
“I was the youngest leader of the Scouts Movement when I was in senior two, that position was only held by those in form five and six, so I broke the record,” he recalls.

“I knew I was from a royal family but it was not exciting because I know that we reap what we sow. So I did not count on the royal family,” says Rwot Achana II.
“I did not isolate myself in school. But rather lived a social life just like other ordinary children.” He says at the time, the highly respected students were the children of government officials like Oyite Ojok.
After A’ level, he studied hotel management and later conflict resolution in the US.

Employment record
After school, Achana worked in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide as an official in charge of re-unification of unaccompanied children.
“I used to sneak to Gulu to check on my father and siblings who were left helpless as a result of the continuous civil wars in the region,” he says.
He says as a social worker and a foreigner in Rwanda, there was a lot of intimidation from people accusing him and other non Rwandans of stealing their jobs.
He observes that his father, at the time, also wanted him at home to serve his people, which eventually forced him back in 1997.
He also worked for several years as a manager at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel and in 2001 he opted to attend several courses in peace building in the UK and US.
Running the chiefdom
"Runing the chiefdom has not been an easy task," Rwot Achana confesses.
He says the institution is financially constrained, adding that much of the money is got after writing proposals to well-wishers.
He says the Shs5 million the government gives to every cultural institution, monthly, is little.

This money, Achana says, cannot help his people, who have been rendered dependant on food aid. Achana is also concerned that poverty and HIV/Aids are taking a heavy toll on his people.

“It had never been in our tradition for adults to survive on handouts, but this war has turned my people into beggars. There is so much poverty and disease,” he says.
“At the peak of the war, the soldiers were the only people with cash and there is no doubt that they used it to seduce the unprivileged ones into reckless sexual activities, leading to the spread of HIV/Aids.”

He also blames the war for cultural degeneration. “In our culture, once a boy reaches 15 years, he must leave the father’s hut and build his own. This was a sign of maturity and responsibility, but the war made all these impossible,” he adds.
The Kingdom used to get sheer nut trees for making royal drums and performing cultural rituals but all these have been destroyed as the trees were cut down for business and settlement.

Future plans
Achana, however, believes that all hope is not lost. There is confidence that the peace talks between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, led by Joseph Kony, can still take place.
“He [Kony] has tarnished our name through his reckless attacks in DR Congo, Central African Republic and south Sudan on civilians, but I think he can still sit to talk peace,” Achana says, adding that, the population is still not certain of continued peace, because the rebels could still sneak back to destabilise the region.
On the rampant land conflicts, he says, they are planning to ensure that amicable solutions are sought for all land related problems through formal and informal justice mechanisms.
He notes that although the Acholi tribe had 28 clans, today, about 54 clans claim recognition.

The biggest clan Payira now has 57 sub-clans. He warns that the institution will not tolerate illegitimate chiefs who only claim the throne for personal gains. Members of the royal lineage kaka pa rwot are known as the ‘people of the court' or ‘jokal' (sing) lokal or jobito (sing) lobito or the ‘people of power'- joker, while the commoners' lineage is called luak meaning bulk or mass. An ordinary person is known as dano.

Historians assert that the Acholi are a product of intermarriages between the Luo and the Madi. They are Luo in language and custom, and are closely related to the Alur of West Nile, the Japadhola of eastern Uganda and the Joluo of Kenya.
They occupy the districts of Gulu, Pader, Lamwo, Amuru, Kitgum and lately Agago, which formerly constituted the Acholi District. There are also some Acholi in the south Sudan.