foreign relations

Africa – Ukraine: Behind the scenes of an African mediation attempt

By Jeune Afrique

Posted on May 22, 2023 11:17

 © Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). Mandel NGAN and Mikhail Metzel / various sources / AFP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). Mandel NGAN and Mikhail Metzel / various sources / AFP

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, President of Senegal Macky Sall, Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso […] and the list goes on. French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier has been trying to set up a mediation of African leaders between Russia and Ukraine since December. We reveal the story behind these efforts.

Businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, who is also president of the Brazzaville Foundation, tells us he will travel to Moscow on 19 May to fine-tune the details of his project. The announcement, officially made on 16 May by President Ramaphosa, has provoked a certain amount of scepticism.

In the Russian capital, the Frenchman – who has already been there 10 times in the last six months – is in contact with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister in charge of Africa, who reports to Sergei Lavrov, his minister, who then informs the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.

Ollivier also travelled to Kyiv four times during the same period to meet with the Ukrainian presidency and with close collaborators of Volodymyr Zelensky. The latter, like his adversarial Russian counterpart, agreed to host a delegation of African leaders at short notice.

© Jean-Yves Ollivier, businessman and president of the Brazzaville Foundation, in Johannesburg, 31 August 2017. Vincent Fournier/JA

The gang of six

Six presidents, intended to represent a diversity of opinions in the current conflict, were chosen and canvassed by Ollivier.

Ramaphosa and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, reputedly close to Moscow, are to be accompanied by Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema, seen as favourable to Kyiv, as well as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Senegal’s Macky Sall, the latter three of whom consider themselves neutral.

Ollivier, who has been working on this project for six months, secured the tacit support of the American authorities in December 2022 by travelling to Washington, following the US-Africa summit, in the company of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, an important member of his Brazzaville Foundation who is very involved in diplomatic circles.

According to our information, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s teams were involved in bringing the French businessman closer to the Ukrainian presidency. Ollivier also kept the British government informed, visiting the Foreign Office in London in December with the former Nigerian president.

Assoumani’s U-turn

A meeting was also held on 16 February in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on the sidelines of the African Union summit, in the presence of the relevant leaders or their representatives. Ollivier tried to convince the new AU Chair, Azali Assoumani of Comoros, to join the initiative.

After initially agreeing, the latter preferred to stand back. Ollivier’s project is not totally supported, however: among his detractors is France, which for years has considered the businessman to be too open to the interests of major foreign powers, especially Russia and the US.

According to our information, the African mediation should start in Kyiv and end in Moscow. The latest discussions between the organisers and their future hosts suggest the mission should take place before the Russia-Africa summit, scheduled to take place in St Petersburg at the end of July. This would be a crucial summit for Moscow, to which Vladimir Putin has invited all the continent’s leaders, who are in turn under pressure from the West to boycott the event.

The five heads of state will not, however, make the trip without first obtaining some guarantees of announcements, namely a temporary freeze on military operations or the assurance that a new referendum will be held in the Ukrainian region of Donbass. “This isn’t a tourist adventure,” Ollivier assures.

Several attempts at African diplomatic intervention have already failed, including that of Sall on the AU’s behalf, as well as that of Bissau-Guinean Umaro Sissoco Embaló for ECOWAS.

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