Interviewed online by Ernest Sumelong — At least some 200,000 South Sudanese have fled their homes in search of safety following escalation of the crisis that erupted in that country in mid-December last year. An estimated 73,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya to seek shelter from the ongoing violence.

Cameroonian-born George Esunge Fominyen, who is World Food Programme spokesperson, says the situation is unpredictable and tense, yet many South Sudanese, as well as the international community, are hopeful that there will be a positive outcome to current negotiations going on in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In this exclusive interview with The Post, Fominyen (presently in Juba, South Sudan) looks at the situation on the ground, the challenges WFP is facing in meeting the food needs of the displaced people and prospects for peace.

The Post: As UN World Food Programme spokesman in South Sudan, you are part of a team that has been catering for displaced and vulnerable South Sudanese as a result of the current crisis in Africa’s newest state. Can you describe the situation at the moment?

Fominyen: The situation in Juba, where I am, is relatively calm. When I speak to colleagues in the headquarters of states where there has been fighting in the past week or so, they say the situation is unpredictable and tense. This crisis has forced at least 200,000 people to flee their homes in search of safety. These people’s livelihoods have been disrupted and they have to rely on humanitarian assistance to survive.

At our food distribution sites, I have seen so many people who tell me they were living simple but comfortable lives but are now forced to camp in makeshift shelters in crowded settlements for displaced persons. One man told me that he was tired of living in camps. He said he had been a refugee in Ethiopia and later in Kenya for many years during the civil war period. When his country became independent two and a half years ago, his dream was to settle and live in peace.

Now he is forced to flee again. I met a group of university students who have sought refuge in one of the UN peacekeeping bases. Eleven of them live inside one small makeshift shelter and they take turns cooking meals. They were uncertain about their future – whether they would be able to return to school and finish their studies. It is a challenging situation.

What are the prospects that peace will return to South Sudan anytime soon?

There are negotiations underway in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and many South Sudanese, as well as the international community, are hopeful that that there will be a positive outcome to these talks. WFP fears that the impact of the conflict on food security will be significant for some time even if the political negotiations are successful. Food insecurity was a major challenge for South Sudan even before the conflict, and unrest has disrupted commercial supplies to local markets in much of the country.

The WFP issued a press release on January 13, 2014, decrying the looting of food that could cater for some 180,000 people in one month and also difficulties in accessing some areas (due to the fierce fighting) to pre-position food. What are some of the other challenges that the WFP faces in carrying out its mission of assisting South Sudanese?

The scale and nature of the displacements in the current conflict are somewhat different from what we have seen in previous outbreaks of violence in South Sudan, and will require a somewhat different response. The conflict and insecurity, combined with poor road networks, are likely to prevent us from easily reaching many of the worst-affected communities. We are working to overcome such severe challenges to providing relief to those in need, including the looting of several of our warehouses and compounds.

WFP has reached more than 100,000 people since we started responding to this crisis and we reach more people each day.  We are using stocks that we had in the country prior to the crisis. The majority of these stocks are in warehouses located in places we have difficulty accessing due to insecurity and we are receiving news that a number of these warehouses are being looted.

WFP estimates that more than 10 percent of the food we had in the country prior to the crisis has been looted, and food stocks in other locations are at risk. We urge all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and to safeguard humanitarian assets – such as food stocks – so that they can be used to provide critical relief for people, especially women and children, affected by the violence

Are there people streaming to other countries and will they receive assistance?

According to the UN Office for the Coordination Affairs (OCHA) more than 73,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. WFP is assisting tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have arrived in the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya since fighting erupted in mid-December. WFP is working to see that newly arriving asylum seekers receive immediate assistance, and is preparing for an even larger increase in the number of refugees if the conflict continues.

Aside from the South Sudanese crisis, George Esunge Fominyen was and still is a household name in Cameroon journalism. After your graduation from the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Buea, you had a stint at both CRTV Mount Cameroon FM Buea and CRTV National Station. You were soon at the British High Commission, then, suddenly you left the country only to be seen on the international media (BBC for instance) as WFP spokesman. Tell us a bit about your journalistic sojourn.

It’s been an interesting and diverse experience in media and communications since I left Cameroon; working in media development and media for development, international news reporting and public affairs or communication.

I have been in South Sudan as the Public Information Officer (Spokesman) of the UN World Food Programme for the past 18 months. Until I joined WFP, I covered food and health emergencies, wars, conflict, natural disasters and climate change as the Dakar-based West & Central Africa correspondent of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Before that, I was the Coordinator of the Multimedia Editorial Unit of Panos Institute West Africa, a media development/media for development outfit based in Dakar, Senegal. I have learnt a lot, met many people, taken up new passions like photography and multimedia journalism (though I’ve maintained old passions like football) and discovered several cultures.

First published in The Post print edition no 01498