Sunday, 28 May 2023

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The cigar-chomping ‘Kissinger’ behind Africa’s mission to end Ukraine war

A granary in Hungary full of Ukraine grain

The French dealmaker who is brokering an improbable African diplomatic mission to help end the war in Ukraine is a veteran commodities trader with homes in several continents and close friends in as many presidential palaces.

Jean-Yves Ollivier, a cigar-chomping middleman who has been striking deals on the continent for six decades, has previously taken credit for parlaying his business and political connections into prisoner swaps, troop withdrawals and ceasefires in some of Africa’s thorniest conflicts.

His record as a broker in the oil-rich Republic of Congo, and links to its longtime president stretching back almost half a century, have made him a controversial figure. Other hats he has worn during his long career include advising Russia’s nuclear power group Rosatom.

Now, at 78, Ollivier, has set his sights on what would be his most striking deal yet: getting Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy to start talking.

Speaking to the Financial Times this week from the Poland-Ukraine border, before he was due to board a night train to Kyiv, Ollivier said all negotiations started somewhere, and he had chosen grain, fertiliser and prisoner exchanges as the basis to open discussions between Moscow and Kyiv.

“I will play [Henry] Kissinger,” he said of his role, referring to the former US secretary of state famed for his diplomatic manoeuvrings.

A granary in Hungary full of Ukrainian grain. Ollivier says he has chosen grain as one of the discussion points between Moscow and Kyiv © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

“The most important thing in any negotiation is to put people together and talk about something,” said Ollivier, who has homes in several countries in Europe and Africa. Putin and Zelenskyy have agreed to meet the delegation of leaders from Egypt, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zambia and Uganda, who intend to travel to Moscow and Kyiv next month. They have every right to mediate in the conflict given the enormous consequences for their region, Ollivier said.

“The only continent that’s really suffering is Africa. I don’t think the US is suffering, I don’t think Europe is suffering, expect for a little bit of inflation,” said Ollivier, a French citizen born in Algeria. “But in Africa, if there’s no crop next year because there’s no fertiliser, millions of people are going to die.”

The African contingent will travel under the auspices of the Brazzaville Foundation that was founded by Ollivier. Yet Olusegun Obasanjo, a…

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