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.
“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, and Ollivier said the group of six had every right to mediate in the conflict given the enormous consequences for their region.
“The only continent that’s really suffering is Africa. I don’t think the US is suffering, I don’t think Europe is suffering, except 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 former Nigerian president who is on the foundation’s advisory board, expressed scepticism about the initiative, particularly because it has no backing from the African Union.
Obasanjo, himself a veteran negotiator, also worried that the mission was premature, based on conversations with the US state department and UK foreign office. “They made it clear this is not the right time,” he said.
Ollivier, whose career began in the 1960s as a grain trader, is known as a fixer close to Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the Republic of Congo’s president and one of those involved in the peace initiative. Ollivier has brokered several deals on behalf of Congo’s state oil company and helped a venture backed by Och-Ziff, the US hedge fund now rebranded Sculptor Capital Management, to acquire a stake in an Eni-operated offshore gasfield in the country in 2010.
The venture sold its 25 per cent stake in 2019 to Russia’s Lukoil. Och-Ziff paid more than $400mn in 2016 to settle US allegations of bribery in several African nations, including an SEC claim that the firm had “failed to disclose material facts” regarding the Congo deal.
Ollivier said he had “never backed or been in contact directly or indirectly with Och-Ziff”, and had “never been interrogated or questioned by the US, SEC or any other official body”.
His connections to Putin stem from his work for Rosatom. “I was trying to promote the idea that China and Russia could work together to export civilian nuclear plant and both Russia and China chose me as a go-between,” Ollivier said. He denied any involvement in the contentious Rosatom deal with South Africa, agreed by then president Jacob Zuma, which was later struck down by the country’s constitutional court.
Ollivier said his foundation’s peace initiative came about after “conversations I had with some of my African leader friends”, adding that he had received no objections from western capitals.
South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, another of the sextet, was ideally placed to pitch to Putin and Zelenskyy, Ollivier said. Ramaphosa called both leaders this month as he was battling the fallout from a US accusation that his country covertly supplied arms to Russia.
Alex Vines, Africa programme director at the Chatham House think-tank, said “each African leader has an agenda” to take part. Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema was keen to counter perceptions that he was too pro-western, Ramaphosa was seeking to rebuild his credibility after the US arms accusation, while Sassou-Nguesso wanted to shed the pariah status built up over his lengthy rule.
All were desperate to stem food price inflation and prevent shortages on their continent. Ollivier said the Turkey-brokered deal that allowed Ukraine to ship its grain via the Black Sea was “very fragile”, despite it receiving a two-month extension last week.
Any push to release the Russian fertiliser exports that Africa needs in return for a better deal to export Ukrainian grain would need to be squared with Russia’s severed access to the global Swift system for banking payments. While no western sanctions target Russian food or fertiliser exports directly, Moscow has blamed restrictions on financing and shipping for stranding its products.
“Swift’s not going to be established for all Russia — we’re not asking for that,” Ollivier said, but access “should be established with specific banking channels, specifically for fertiliser”.
Asked if his initiative was at risk of being used by either side for their own ends, Ollivier said it was normal in any negotiations that parties would see opportunities to push their own interests. The African leaders were “highly experienced and I don’t think anybody wants to favour one or the other.”
As to how serious any peace effort could be given developments on the battlefield, with Ukraine preparing a counteroffensive and Russia fortifying its front lines, Ollivier was cautiously optimistic.
“The fact they already accepted to talk is progress in itself,” he said.