JUBA, South Sudan — More than 10 armed groups came to the negotiating table in neighboring Ethiopia in early May, for South Sudan’s third round of peace talks — several times the number of groups that existed when the war broke out in 2013 between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir’s government forces and troops loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
What many conflict analysts have described as an “alphabet soup of groups,” is seen by some aid organizations as a foray into easier access, stronger negotiating positions, and a way to better work with local communities. But other groups view the growing fragmentation as a threat, grappling with how to deliver aid without exacerbating existing insecurity.
For local aid group Nile Hope, which works in the country’s most conflict-affected areas, the increase of armed actors has, in some ways, made access easier.
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“Having more groups has brought competition for service delivery, which makes [the groups] nicer in the eyes of the NGOs because they want something from them,” said Mat Gai Lual, program director at Nile Hope.
When the war began, there were only two groups, explained Lual, neither of which tried very hard to gain the favor of aid organizations. Now, armed actors have become more calculated, wanting to make a good impression with their own communities by claiming responsibility for bringing in resources.
“Everyone wants to look good, so if you prevent fighting and look good to the aid groups, there will be more service delivery in your areas,” said Lual.
The biggest issue resulting from the conflict, according to Lual, is encouraging populations to remain in established communities rather than fleeing to the bush or across the border. Every armed group wants to prove that they can bring services to the community — but they need to have a population big enough to be served.
Other organizations say the proliferation of opposition groups has given humanitarians increased negotiating power, especially with weaker, splinter factions who are more willing to cooperate: “The more fragmented the groups are, and the more isolated they are, the weaker they are,” said Shah Jamal Akhlaque, communication for development specialist at the United Nations Children's Fund.
Multiple leaders have stepped in to take over from former vice president and leader of the main opposition group, Riek Machar — now under house arrest in South Africa — and this allows for easier coordination of services and access, according to Akhlaque.
Often plagued by bureaucracy, larger groups are more likely to be spread out over large swaths of land. Fragmented groups, on the other hand, are both confined to small geographical areas and are usually smaller in numbers. Both these factors make it easier for aid organizations to speak to the party’s top-level decision-makers, who can grant immediate access to overcome disputes since they’re keen to gain legitimacy.
Representatives from both UNICEF and Nile Hope cited recent incidents where money was stolen from their field offices. After speaking with the group leaders of the various factions, the money was swiftly returned. They each attributed it to having direct access to people who influence decisions.
But the World Food Programme says it’s this desire to gain “political mileage” — by leveraging humanitarian organizations in order to garner popularity from the community — that’s making the landscape more dangerous for aid workers and contributing to a deteriorating operating environment.
In the past two months, 26 aid workers have been abducted by armed groups in three separate incidents, and three local humanitarians killed, bringing the number to at least 100 aid workers killed during the five-year conflict, according to the U.N.
“With economic challenges, sometimes people take advantage of aid workers and supplies for their personal gain,” said Adnan Khan, representative and country director at WFP.
For example, high-ranking officers will turn a blind eye when lower ranking soldiers demand payments from aid workers to allow access to certain areas, Khan said. In those cases, it would be helpful to have a higher authority to speak to, someone with a big-picture perspective over the value of services, he added.
Increased fragmentation also hinders aid delivery along supply routes. To ensure safe passage, the lines of control must be clearly marked, Khan said, yet one route can often change hands several times between various armed groups, meaning that organizations have to track their convoys closely and ensure messages are being relayed to the right people along the way.
The lengthy procedures this requires can cause delays in delivery of life-saving assistance.
As much as NGOs try to remain nonpartisan and deliver aid to people in need rather than where armed groups try to pull them, Nile Hope’s Lual said they must also consider security. Recently, his teams pulled out of the town of Leer in Unity State, South Sudan, after being attacked by armed men for the third time.
As a national actor, he says his NGO is better placed to negotiate with various factions, while also being aware of the escape routes if they have to evacuate. His advice to other organizations, when negotiating, is to come from a place of strength and to engage with local leaders.
“Whenever there’s conflict, even if there’s fragmented groups and locations change hands, there’s a tendency that [armed actors] always have huge respect for local traditional leaders,” Lual said.
His team spends a lot of time establishing rapport with community leaders, as they’re the ones with influence and the ultimate decision-makers.
Ultimately, to deliver aid to the most vulnerable people in South Sudan, aid groups are forced to walk a fine line — doing what it takes to gain access while not becoming entangled in the confusion.
“NGOs aren’t playing this game, but they’re caught up in the middle of everything,” he said.