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:
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.