HARARE, ZIMBABWE -- First came the fellow representing the Palestine Liberation Organization. He did his best to defend Saddam Hussein, proclaiming the Iraqi leader a "great Arab nationalist" and "true friend of Africa" as the crowd of Zimbabweans erupted in outbursts of mixed boos and cheers.

Next, a West African political science professor drew a similar reaction when he said there was little Africa or the rest of the Third World could do about the Persian Gulf conflict because "no one in the West really cares what we think anymore."

But of all the speakers who addressed a tumultuous public forum here last week on the gulf war and its consequences for Africa, none attracted greater criticism than a Soviet diplomatic official named Mikhail Bochrnikov.

"It's your fault!" shouted an angry African, his finger wagging at the diplomat, as he accused the Soviet Union of forsaking its traditional support for Middle Eastern and Third World causes and its role as adversary of the West. "You turned tail and ran away! You left everything for the Americans! Now, they are free to work whatever mischief they want."

More than 10 days after the first missile was fired in the gulf war, the conflict continues to rivet the attention of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa as few events have since the continent's transition to independence more than 30 years ago.

From Mauritania to Kenya, the gulf war is the chief news of the day on radio and in newspaper reports, with gripping scenes of modern warfare replayed nightly on television sets before transfixed viewers on an impoverished continent where television itself is largely a new technology.

But just as provocative as the war itself is the debate the conflict has engendered in African intellectual circles and halls of government over its economic and political costs and consequences here.

So far, that debate, which has included arguments about the turbulent history of Arab-African relations, largely has centered on the war's economic and political ramifications in a region where Islam is a major religion.

While Niger and Senegal are the only sub-Saharan African countries to supply forces to the U.S.-led military alliance fighting Iraq, other nations in Africa with sizable Moslem populations are suffering internal strife triggered by the war. Among them are Nigeria and Sudan, where demonstrators have protested the attack on Iraq.

But of perhaps even greater concern are the economic effects of the war. The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa warned in a major report earlier this month that the gulf crisis -- and its consequences for oil prices and supplies -- will exacerbate suffering on this continent, already the world's poorest.

While Africa's seven oil-producing nations earned an estimated $10 billion more than predicted in 1990, the report declared that the rest of the continent had to spend $2.7 billion more than expected last year in extremely scarce foreign exchange to import oil.

Indeed, here in Zimbabwe, where the government had budgeted about $180 million for oil imports last year, nearly twice that amount was actually spent during 1990, according to officials and Western diplomats who fear wide suffering and possible political and social instability here as the regime struggles to enact spending cuts in an economic-reform program.

Elsewhere on the continent, international relief officials say the gulf war may divert aid resources and world attention from the problems of an estimated 20 million Africans from Sudan to Angola who are at risk of famine induced by drought and civil war.

Analysts agree that the overall effect of the gulf war likely will be even steeper national debts throughout Africa, lowered world demand and prices for Africa's commodities and sharply retarded growth for the continent's fragile economies.

But beyond these immediate repercussions, the gulf war also has highlighted a deep sense of powerlessness, confusion, disenchantment and alienation from the world community that many Africans seem to share in the aftermath of the Cold War era, feelings reflected at the gulf forum.

"I think it is clear that the demise of the Cold War clearly made this war possible," H. R. Patel, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, told the crowd. "For many years, events in Africa were given great animus by the East-West struggle. . . . Now we are on the margins of the world debate as never before."

Sponsored by a Zimbabwean academic periodical called the Journal on Social Change, the forum attracted a cross section of African academics, diplomats and hundreds of Zimbabweans who packed a smoke-filled downtown auditorium.

Held in the capital of a southern African country whose independence was won just 10 years ago after a protracted armed struggle, the event often was laden with leftist political dogma.

It also featured expressions of lingering distrust of the United States, which declined to play an active role in Zimbabwe's nationalist fight and whose international motives remain largely suspect here to this day.

"Imperialist monster," "greedy superpower" and "international gangster" were just a few of the terms tossed about by a couple of radicals to describe the United States and its stance against Saddam, who was ordained by one speaker as a "warrior against Western hegemony."

But in a larger and more practical sense, the forum revealed dynamic and unresolved political tensions in Zimbabwe -- and indeed among other nations of Africa -- as the continent struggles to adjust to the post-Cold War period.

Several African diplomats charged that the United Nations appeared to have been "manipulated" by the United States to garner support for its war effort, and expressed chagrin over what one official called "the death of the Non-Aligned Movement" of Third World countries.

That movement, in which Zimbabwe has played an active role for the last decade, had served as a political counterbalance to East and West and provided a vehicle for Third World views. But with the political upheavals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in recent years and the cooling of superpower competition for favor and political influence in the Third World, the Non-Aligned Movement has lost considerable steam.

The gulf crisis also highlights Zimbabwe's and Africa's unusual relationship with the Palestinian cause. Long supportive of the Palestinians in their fight for a homeland in the Middle East, seeing in it a reflection of its own fight for national liberation, Zimbabwe is one of a handful of countries in Africa to host what it calls an embassy of the state of Palestine.

Yet as one Zimbabwean in the forum audience said to the PLO's resident representative in southern Africa, Ali Halimeh: "How can you look to this man {Saddam} as a leader for your cause when he kills his own people with that poison gas? How can you expect us to support him as well?"

"For centuries, Arabs have enslaved Africans," said a Zimbabwean woman trembling with rage. "They continue to do so in parts of Sudan and Mauritania. . . . I see no reason for us to believe in your man's cause."

Halimeh responded that the linkage of the Palestinian struggle to the gulf war -- as Saddam has attempted to do -- was no more unreasonable than the United States' linking of its support for peace initiatives in southern Africa to a withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, a point that prompted shouts of agreement from the crowd.

While this country's media castigate the United States for the war and accuse Israel of "creating a constant climate of violence and lawlessness in the Middle East," as Zimbabwe's Daily Herald said in a recent editorial, the government of Robert Mugabe has been much more circumspect, calling for Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait.

Now, perhaps more than ever, Western diplomats here are paying attention to what Mugabe says. As a member of the U.N. Security Council since Jan. 1, Zimbabwe may be called upon to play a key role in future months in determining the tenor of events in the gulf region.

U.S. officials posted in Zimbabwe were invited to take part in the gulf forum but declined, expressing concerns that the program would be politically stacked against the American side. Instead, the U.S. Embassy here sent a three-page written explanation of American policies, an act taken by many in the crowd as an affront.

"This shows how much they {the Americans} think of us and Africa's role in the world!" said M. C. Halimana, a Zimbabwean political economist, drawing roars of assent.

Throughout it all, Bochrnikov, the Soviet charge d'affaires here, and a colleague, Soviet Consul Nicolai Stolarsky, bore the brunt of the criticism quietly for nearly three hours. Finally, Stolarsky strode to the podium.

"We have heard much criticism of our foreign policies tonight, but I respectfully urge you to try to understand a few things," he said, and proceeded to explain that the Soviet Union was undergoing tremendous changes and that while it would continue to support national liberation struggles, it would try to seek peaceful change.

"That is why our embassy is still open while the bombs fall in Baghdad," he said. "We are still working to find a way to peace."

Recalling the final scenes of the World War II film, "Bridge on the River Kwai," Stolarskly repeated the words of a Red Cross official in the movie, as the character watched the destruction of war.

" 'Madness,' this man kept saying over and over," said Stolarsky. "And that is our message today. War is madness, and it must end." His words prompted the night's last wave of applause.