Cigar-chewing ‘Kissinger’ behind Africa’s mission to end war in Ukraine

The French merchant brokering an incredible African diplomatic mission to help end the war in Ukraine is a seasoned commodity trader with homes on multiple continents and close friends in as many presidential palaces.

Jean-Yves Olivier, a cigar-chewing middleman who has brokered deals on the continent for six decades, has previously taken credit for using his business and political connections to exchange prisoners, withdraw troops and ceasefire some of Africa’s most poignant conflicts. .

His experience as a broker in the oil-rich Republic of the Congo and nearly half a century of ties to its longtime president have made him a controversial figure. Other duties he has had in his long career include advising the Russian nuclear energy group Rosatom.

Now at 78, Olivier has set his sights on what will be his biggest deal: getting Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelensky to start a conversation.

Speaking to the Financial Times this week from the Polish-Ukrainian border, before he was due to board the overnight train to Kiev, Olivier said that all negotiations started somewhere, and he opted for an exchange of grain, fertilizer and prisoners in as a basis for starting negotiations between Moscow and Kiev.

“I will play [Henry] Kissinger,” he said of his role, referring to the former US Secretary of State known for his diplomatic manoeuvres.

Granary in Hungary full of Ukrainian grain
A granary in Hungary full of Ukrainian grain. Olivier says he has chosen grain as one of the topics for discussion between Moscow and Kiev © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

“The most important thing in any negotiation is to get people together and talk about something,” said Olivier, who has homes in several countries in Europe and Africa.

Putin and Zelensky agreed to meet with a delegation of the leaders of Egypt, Senegal, the Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Zambia and Uganda, who intend to travel to Moscow and Kiev next month, and Olivier said the six-man group has every right to mediate. in conflict, given the huge implications for their region.

“The only continent that is really suffering is Africa. I don’t think the US is suffering, I don’t think Europe is suffering, except for a little inflation,” said Olivier, a French citizen born in Algeria. “But in Africa, if there is no crop next year due to lack of fertilizer, millions of people will die.”

The African contingent will travel under the auspices of the Brazzaville Foundation founded by Olivier. However, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president who sits on the foundation’s advisory board, expressed skepticism about the initiative, especially since it lacks support from the African Union.

Obasanjo, himself a seasoned negotiator, is also concerned that the mission was premature, based on conversations with the US State Department and the UK Foreign Office. “They made it clear that now is not the right time,” he said.

Olivier, whose career began in the 1960s as a grain merchant, is known as an intermediary close to Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo and one of the participants in the peace initiative. Olivier brokered several deals on behalf of Congo’s state oil company and helped a venture backed by Och-Ziff, an American hedge fund renamed Sculptor Capital Management, acquire a stake in Eni’s offshore gas field in the country in 2010.

In 2019, the company sold its 25% stake to the Russian company Lukoil. In 2016, Och-Ziff paid more than $400 million to settle U.S. bribery charges in several African countries, including a statement by the Securities and Exchange Commission that the firm “failed to disclose material facts” regarding the Congo deal.

Olivier said that he “has never supported or contacted directly or indirectly with Och-Ziff”, and “has never been interrogated or interrogated by the US, the SEC, or any other official body.”

His ties to Putin stem from his work at Rosatom. “I was trying to promote the idea that China and Russia could work together to export civil nuclear power plants, and both Russia and China chose me as an intermediary,” Olivier said. He denied any involvement in Rosatom’s controversial deal with South Africa, negotiated by then-President Jacob Zuma, which was later rejected by the country’s Constitutional Court.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019 © Sergey Chirikov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Olivier said his foundation’s peace initiative came about after “conversations I had with some of my fellow African leaders,” adding that he had received no objection from Western capitals.

According to Olivier, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, another member of the sextet, was ideally suited to address Putin and Zelensky. Ramaphosa called both leaders this month as he grappled with the fallout from US allegations that his country was secretly supplying arms to Russia.

Alex Vines, Africa program director at think tank Chatham House, said “every African leader has a program” to get involved. Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia sought to refute the notion that he was too pro-Western, Ramaphosa sought to regain his authority after accusing the US of weapons, and Sassou Nguesso wanted to shake off the pariah status that had developed during his long reign.

Everyone was desperate to stop food price inflation and prevent shortages on their continent. Olivier said the Turkish-brokered deal that allowed Ukraine to ship its grain across the Black Sea was “very fragile” despite it being extended by two months last week.

Any push to free up Russian fertilizer exports, which Africa needs in exchange for a better deal on Ukrainian grain exports, must be tied to Russia’s limited access to Swift’s global banking payment system. While no Western sanctions target Russian food or fertilizer exports directly, Moscow blames funding and delivery restrictions for stranding its products.

“Swift will not be installed for the whole of Russia – we are not asking for this,” Olivier said, but access “should be established with specific banking channels, specifically for fertilizers.”

When asked if there is a risk that his initiative will be used by any of the parties for their own purposes, Olivier replied that in any negotiations the parties see opportunities to advance their interests. The African leaders were “very experienced and I don’t think anyone wants to favor one or the other.”

As for how serious the peace effort could be given the developments on the battlefield, with Ukraine preparing a counteroffensive and Russia fortifying its front lines, Olivier was cautiously optimistic.

“The fact that they have already agreed to talk is progress in itself,” he said.