The summit conference of the Organization of African Unity that just ended here provided yet another insight into the strange fascination exerted by Ugandan President Idi Amin.

From beginning to end of the four-day conference of African chiefs of state, Amin's hulking, bemedaled presence never failed to elicit laughter or applause from the continent's assembled elite.

Such marks of only slightly condescending respect are hard to fathom at first, especially since only last month in London, Africans joined other members of the British Commonwealth in condemning Uganda's disregard for human life.

After all, the men and women gathered here were not representative of the illiterate African masses who may not know about Amin's atrocities and revel in his constant twitting of the once all-powerful white man.

Even Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, a respected humanitarian who has never hidden his contempt for Amin's antics, remained strangely silent when reporters asked him why he had not denounced the Ugandan leader here.

The only charges of mass murder and atrocities heard throughout the summit were leveled not at Amin, but by the Somalis at the Ethiopian government.

No one bothered to condemn atrocities said to have taken place in President Ahmed Sekou Toure's Guinea or in President Francisco Macias Nguema's Equatorial Guinea.

Some observers think Africa's attitude toward Amin operates on two levels, one representing an ideal, the other representing African reality.

The conferees here, and hundreds of thousands of less exalted Africans, know perfectly well that the world is appalled by Amin's bloodthirsty clowning.

For many Africans, however, Amin is the perfect model of the pre-colonial African tribal leader, in turn flamboyant, feared and ruthless, but always respected for his power.

Moreover, Amin's highly professional manipulation of the Western Press, which relishes his antics, has an influence on other political leaders. For better or worse, Amin has become the best known African.

There is also the deep-seated African inferiority complex that underlies the double-standard practice of ritually denouncing repression by white minority governments while ignoring the systematic violation of human rights in most black African countries.

The truth is that almost all leaders of independent Africa are frightened men haunted by the continent's capacity for coups. In their hearts they know they have already resorted to the most draconian methods, or would do so at the slightest provocation to remain on their unsteady thrones.

Preventive detention, censorship, persecution of dissidents and worse are common, and there are only a few African countries that respect any basic human rights.

The unspoken fear among the continent's more thoughtful and decent citizens is that Africa had best get used to its Idi Amins.

For looking around Africa, where perhaps a quarter of the governments are military ones, there seems to have been a discernible decline in the quality of the leadership.

The men and women who were in the OAU conference hall are full-time participants in the African power game, and that may explain their indulgence of one of their own. But the list of Africans who prefer to live in exile than put up with them grows daily.