Three bit players take center stage at the UN

One is an oil-rich Portuguese-speaking nation recovering from a 27-year civil war. Another is an impoverished former French colony whose majority Muslim population is ruled by an ailing authoritarian. The third is stable West African country with moderate oil stocks and close ties to France.

Normally small players in international affairs, these three African countries - Angola, Guinea, and Cameroon - have taken center stage in the debate over whether the world should disarm Iraq by force. The three are among the six nations on the United Nations Security Council still officially undecided over which way to vote on a new UN resolution.

With a vote likely as early as Thursday, the three countries have been barraged by phone calls and diplomatic visits by France, Britain, and the United States in a last-minute bid to win their support. It's an effort that is reminiscent of the courtship - and arm-twisting - that shaped the destinies of small nations during the cold war.

But even as negotiations continue over the terms of a new resolution, analysts say the final language and terms are less important to these countries than the fallout from offending either of the two main players - France or the US.

"They're caught between a rock and a hard place," says Jakkie Cilliers, director of the South African Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, of the three African nations. "There will be costs if they vote for either."

In 1990, countries voting in favor of the Gulf War were rewarded with cheap Saudi Arabian oil, while Yemen was punished for its 'no' vote with the termination of $70 million in US aid.

Whether or not pressure is as overt this time around, there will likely be consequences for Africa. The Council members are being asked to decide between two important world powers, both of whom are economically important to the continent.

All three African Security-Council members are heavily dependent on foreign aid, and in the case of Angola and Cameroon, markets for their oil. The US is the largest donor to both Angola and Guinea, as well as Angola's biggest trading partner. But France is Angola's second-largest trading partner and Guinea's second-largest donor.

Ultimately, however, the US holds most of the economic cards. Both Cameroon and Guinea have qualified for the 2000 Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), an economic stimulus program which allows them to export duty-free products into the US. Angola would very much like to qualify as well. Additionally, Guinea and Cameroon both depend heavily on the International Monetary Fund, which the US essentially controls.

"In the case of economic relations with Africa, clearly the United States has more to offer, especially to a country like Angola that is making the transition to a more liberal economy," says Greg Mills, head of the South African Institute of International Affairs, a major African political think tank.

Whether the US ultimately prevails in any bidding war, analysts say the long-term effect of a Franco-American split will be negative for Africa.

"The last thing that Africa needs is a fight between two democratic, industrialized partners of Africa," says John Stremlau, head of the international relations department at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. "Its an ill wind that would split these allies for Africa."

Dr. Stremlau says the African Council members and continental powers such as South Africa and Nigeria want to see a strong United Nations with a unified Western block. African diplomacy in recent years has been aimed at trying to woo western investment and aid. Divisions among industrialized nations, he says, will hamper such efforts.

Dr. Cilliers says divisions in the West could also hamper efforts to solve conflicts on the continent. The US, for example, would now be less likely to support a French request for UN intervention in Ivory Coast's civil war, he says. As happened during the cold war, African countries will be important again only in the context of larger geopolitical struggles.

"Africa will be a victim, as it was during the cold war, of competing agendas that it has no control over," says Cilliers. "It will be moved around like chess pieces on a chess board."

While Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea debate how to cast their votes - with reports yesterday that Guinea and Cameroon will abstain - one thing that likely won't play a major role in their decisions is public sentiment. While nominally all democracies, none of the three is known for its sensitivity to the wishes of its people. Nor have there been the kind of antiwar protests in Africa that have been prevalent in other parts of the world, although anti-American sentiment has been growing among African Muslims recently.

Some analysts predict that the African Security Council members will take the path of Pakistan and abstain, therefore avoiding direct conflict with either power. "If they can avoid choosing, they probably will," says Stremlau.

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