From mercenaries to citizens: how the Nubians gained acceptance in Uganda

Published: 12/Jan/2022
Source: The Conversation

By Abudul Mahajubu, Researcher, Makerere University

It’s been well over a century since the Nubian people arrived in Uganda from what was then Sudan, as the armed enforcers of the British colonial government. Over time, the new arrivals assimilated individuals from different ethnic backgrounds within Uganda while remaining a distinct group. Now officially recognised as Ugandans, the history of Ugandan Nubians – sometimes referred to simply as the “Nubi” – makes a case study of how social identity is formed and changed.

The Uganda Nubian origins were in what is now South Sudan. There, in the 1820s, some members of the Shilluk, Dinka, Bari, Lotuko, Madi, Lugbara and Alur ethnic groups coalesced into a community of people known as “Sudanese-Nubians”. They practised Islamic culture and spoke a creolised form of Arabic.


For decades Ugandan Nubians were treated as foreigners or “Abagwira” and discriminated against. But the country’s 1995 constitution recognised the Nubians as a Ugandan indigenous ethnic community and as citizens. This was a significant step because their identity was now officially recognised with similar rights as other Ugandans.

In my PhD research I studied the formation and shifts of the Nubian ethnic identity, and the strategies Uganda Nubians have used to define and sustain themselves as a distinct ethnic group in Uganda. Understanding identity shifts over time allows for an appreciation of the fluidity and the construction of identities.

I drew the conclusion that there is more to ethnic identity than ancestral location or settlement pattern. It goes beyond language or family history too. Understanding this can lead to lessening of ethnic conflicts worsened by the colonially constructed ethnic territorial boundaries.

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Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious
Regions: Uganda
Year: 2022