Visualizing South Sudan: Rent-Seeking Rebellions

The unique structure of the SPLA means that the same kleptocratic principle applies to local leaders and army commanders in rural areas. This generates the “rent-seeking rebellion” cycle:


The level of fatalities among soldiers and civilians is completely disproportionate to the claims of the rebel leader or mutineer.

This in turn contributes to a curiously patternless form of violence, in which there are constant reconfigurations of political allegiance and military coalition. This can be described by a term drawn from fluid dynamics: “turbulent.” A turbulent system, such as a stream of water from a tap, is inherently unpredictable or chaotic from one moment to the next, but maintains its overall structure over a period of time.


Violence in South Sudan is turbulent in this sense: it is hard to keep track of the various actors and their allegiances, but stepping back from the month-to-month changes, a coherent pattern persists over the years.

A snapshot of the turbulence in Jonglei is provided by the data compiled by the Africa Conflict Location and Event Database:

conflict events by actor

Note the sheer number of armed actors involved and the spiky, sporadic nature of the violence, even within this one state in South Sudan.

The South Sudanese militarized governance system may be broadly predictable in its routinized violent reconfigurations, but that does not mean it is in equilibrium. The rent-seeking rebellion cycle inflated the price of allegiance, making the system inherently unstable. It was workable during the CPA Interim Period because income was expanding as oil production increased, and immediately following independence because oil revenues to South Sudan shot up. But, following the oil shutdown, the price became unaffordable, bringing forward the inevitable crash. President Salva Kiir tried excluding members of the elite and coercing them, but it didn’t work. The system ran out of the money that made it function.

3 thoughts on “Visualizing South Sudan: Rent-Seeking Rebellions

  • March 31, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Dear Alex de Waal,

    I always do enjoy your work on Sudan and South Sudan.

    This particular article,while intriguing, I feel misses some key points:

    Your statement –
    “The level of fatalities among soldiers and civilians is completely disproportionate to the claims of the rebel leader or mutineer.”
    – implies that there is a justified proportion between Leader demands and Follower costs. Doubting this, other questions would take center stage:

    Why do followers agree to bear the costs of leaders’ gains?
    If the SPLM/A is so cash-strapped, why is it still lucrative to gain office in it?
    What is the international community doing to incentivize violence as a means for political and economic gains? (Especially considering the ongoing peace talks)

    I do realize, you touch upon many of these points in other works. I simply want to point out that kleptocracy shouldn’t be taken as a given to then try and work within it. Rather it is crucial to understand what sustains a kleptocratic system.

    Tim Glawion

  • April 24, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Hi Alex De Waal. I am a Huge admirer of your work. Interesting arguments that certainly explain the constant shift in allegiances by some of the generals.

    A small typo- ACLED- is Armed Conflict Location and Events Dataset not Africa Conflict Location and Events Dataset.

  • May 5, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Dear Tim,

    (apologies for the late response to your comment)

    The concept of proportionality in armed conflict is a slippery one and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there is a certain level of fatalities that is justifiable. Rather, the intent of these posts is to provoke discussion about the logic of what is happening in South Sudan.

    You ask, why do followers agree to bear the costs? I suggest that it is because of the logic of ethnic mobilization. Armed groups and units are constituted on an ethnic basis, sometimes even a family basis. Once conflict has begun, it has its own cycle of fear and grievance and, for those low-level segments of ethnic groups that are most actively engaged in the conflict, it can become a fight for survival. For the leaders, who are rarely in danger themselves, fighting is largely a business proposition. But they would be foolish to make such calculations clear to their footsoldiers, who might be reluctant to risk all for the relatively meager material rewards that they stand to gain.

    The SPLM/A is cash-strapped: for now. But the winner in today’s contest will preside over a sovereign government that sits on a considerable amount of oil, land and other resources that can be redeemed for cash.

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