Our strange friends in the south

Only four African countries supported the war, and their leaders all have a taste for invading their

At first it was obvious how the war on Iraq would affect Africa: a rise in the oil price, though nice for African petroleum producers in the west and south, will seriously hurt other impoverished economies that have no oil. The tourism industry will diminish. Aid will be diverted to the humanitarian needs of Iraq. Earmarked funding may protect Africa in the short term but in the longer term she will lose out.

Africa will again be marginalised and neglected because world attention is focused elsewhere. The prospects for Nepad (the New Partnership for Africa's Development), a new deal between rich countries and Africa to develop the continent, will suffer. Already in April and May, five high-level meetings for Africans visiting London have been cancelled because of the war.

Some might have expected that a western attack on a Muslim country would spark religious wars in Africa. All of North Africa is predominantly Muslim and most sub-Saharan African countries have significant Muslim and Christian populations. Nigeria, for example, has more Christians and Muslims in one nation than any other country in the world. It has suffered frequent eruptions of inter-faith violence and some manipulative politician may yet spark off more, but so far this has not happened. African politics is driven largely by internal factors and religion is usually just one cause of conflict, not the sole cause.

But now a deeper, more insidious pattern is beginning to emerge. Which African countries came out in support of the war? Not Kenya and Tanzania, which have suffered collateral damage on their territories from Islamist attacks on America and Israel. They might well have joined an alliance against "terror" but no, they have remained silent. So has Djibouti, the tiny but strategically vital Red Sea port enclave, even though President Ismael Omar Guelleh gave the use of its port, airport and military bases to America. Yet he said nothing in public.

In March Africans watched with amusement as poor Valerie Amos, Britain's minister for Africa, was sent to try to persuade the African waverers on the United Nations Security Council to vote for Britain and America in a second resolution. In Guinea, she found the president dying; Cameroon is in France's pocket; and Angola's government is one of the most corrupt in Africa. The Foreign Office insists that Baroness Amos had no aid bribes to offer, only sweet reason. We will never know how great her powers of persuasion were because the threat of a French veto killed off the prospect for a second UN resolution. However, in Guinea, she thought she had made progress at her first meeting with the ailing President Lansana Conte, only to find that his female Liberian marabout, a sort of sorceress, had got to him and persuaded him by means beyond the reach of diplomacy to oppose the war.

Only four countries came out in public support of Bush and Blair: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda. They have other things in common, too. Their present rulers came to power through the barrel of the gun and believe in war as a legitimate political tool. As Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, general secretary of the Pan-African Movement, points out, they support Bush because they hope he will support their own wars. All of them have attacked their neighbours in recent years, claiming self-defence. Twice Rwanda and Uganda invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo to effect regime change. The first time they succeeded and removed Mobutu Sese Seko from power. The second time they failed, but five years later they still have troops there. Now they have started fighting each other. Heavily aid-dependent, they are desperately competing for American and British favours, aid and political support.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are in the same position. Eritrea has attacked three of its neighbours and fought Ethiopia for two years as the two nations tried to wipe each other out. Now they, too, are competing for American support and western aid.

Already the Iraq war has distracted attention from events in Africa. The first coup on the continent since the millennium, in the Central African Republic, went almost unnoticed. Nothing has been done to reverse it. More dangerous wars threaten. Ethiopia and Eritrea may well start fighting again. An international commission has just demarcated the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and has handed the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea. Badme was used by the Ethiopians as a rallying cry in the war and many believe that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cannot survive if he allows it to be returned to Eritrea.

Rwanda and Uganda are also on the brink of another war with each other. Their rulers, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, former close allies, now hate each other with a passion. They fought three pitched battles at Kisangani in Congo in 1999 and 2000 but were persuaded to cool it, notably by Clare Short, the International Development Secretary. Today, visitors to each capital are regaled with tales of the "terrorism" and treachery of the other. The recent massacre in eastern Congo was a result of the proxy war between them. They are no longer fighting just for the minerals and timber they have been looting for the past few years; they now simply want to hurt each other. Without a concerted, concentrated effort by other countries in the region and donors, Uganda and Rwanda may go to war again.

This time Short will be too busy rebuilding Iraq to spend time holding them back. And she cannot use the argument that their invasion of Congo is illegal. Museveni and Kagame are only doing what her government has done in Iraq. Indeed the most destructive weapons of mass destruction since the Second World War have been the machete and the kitchen knife, used in Rwanda in April and May 1994 to butcher almost a million people.

What of the rest of the continent? I have just returned from a trip to Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire, where I asked everyone I met if they supported the war. From presidents to peasants, the answer was no. A colleague asked a similar question in East Africa; the answer was the same. Reports from South Africa echo this opinion. For once, Africa's leaders seem to be speaking for their people. They signed an African Union declaration demanding that war only be declared with the UN's blessing.

If the British government says that they give a different message in private don't believe it. Even Meles Zenawi, a supporter of the war, went out of his way to tell me that the issue for Ethiopia is not nuclear, chemical and biological weapons but Islamic fundamentalism in the Gulf. He feels the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will open up the possibility of secular democratic states in the region, and that that will benefit the Horn of Africa.

The whisper inside the Foreign Office is that the war in Iraq, in fact, has ripped a huge hole in Britain's credibility in Africa. Since the end of the cold war, Britain has sought to co-operate with France and the UN to push Africa higher up the international agenda and secure international support for initiatives to bring peace and development. By turning its back on the UN and falling out with France, Britain has set back that multilateral, UN-based international co-operation by years. It may be dead.

If Britain and America do not manage to resurrect it quickly, Britain will be left following Washington's global "for us or against us" policy. America's levers for this policy are the African Growth and Opportunity Act (its new trade agreement with individual countries) and the Millennium Challenge Account. These bilateral agreements were aimed originally at granting trade and aid benefits to African countries that were democratic, had a good human rights record and followed free-market policies. Now they may become crude tools for propping up allies.

Washington, already upset that Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, refused its suggestion to leave Opec, was further irritated when President Olusegun Obasanjo, with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, had the audacity to suggest that the US and Britain needed a second UN resolution to go to war. President Obasanjo, who prides himself on his friendship with America, was phoned and ticked off by a junior White House official. An American military training programme in Nigeria was promptly cut.

For many Africans, such humiliation will stir feelings like those of a Ghanaian banker friend who told me recently he was so distressed by the war that he found it hard to work. Then suddenly he realised why. "They are doing to Iraq what the British did to my country, my people, 100 years ago," he said. "I have never realised the terribleness of it until now."

This feeling will awaken a dormant suspicion that Britain and America have a neo-imperialist agenda in Africa. Mbeki has already warned: "If the UN does not matter, why should we, the little countries that make up the African Union, think that we matter and will not be punished if we get out of line?"

That will amuse one man: Robert Gabriel Mugabe. You can almost hear him chuckling: "Told you so. That is what you get for bowing down to the white man." Unless Britain is prepared to implement "regime change" by force in Zimbabwe, it is the Saddam of Central Africa who has most to gain from this war.