An era of increased democratization and political accountability is sweeping across the African continent.

With deteriorating economic conditions, growing external support, and international pressure from Western governments and donors for political reform, Zimbabweans are following suit in finally heeding the call for democratic change in their beleaguered country.

There are unprecedented signs of civil discontent and increasing agitation and frustration with the 27-year autocratic rule of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

In Harare, Zimbabwe's beleaguered capital, the country's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) was taken to hospital following his appearance in court with multiple injuries to his body. Last week he had been arrested with a number of his colleagues while attempting to hold an opposition rally.

Meanwhile, scores of doctors, nurses, teachers and university lecturers have gone on strike across the country since last month to protest against deteriorating living conditions and appalling working conditions.

These events, among many other events of the past few weeks, must be seen against the backdrop of increasing civil discontent with the country's humanitarian crisis, which threatens to have detrimental repercussions for the rest of the southern African region.

By all accounts, Zimbabwe is now finding itself on the fringes of near total state collapse, where it was once regarded as the breadbasket of the region, boasting an economy that was envied by the majority of governments on the continent at the time of the end of white minority rule in 1980.

With spiralling inflation of nearly 1,700 per cent in February, foreign reserves depleted, an unemployment rate of over 80 per cent, more than 3,300 AIDS-related deaths per week and chronic poverty affecting more than 76 per cent of the population, the economic prospects for this southern African state look exceptionally bleak for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the country faces a food deficit of about 850,000 tons of maize, the national staple food, which constitutes roughly one third of its normal requirements.

Critics have often blamed the seizure of white-owned farms since 2000 for much of the economic ills of the country. However, many other factors, as well as government policies dating back to the mid-1990s, could offer a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of how the country has fallen prey to the precarious situation that it finds itself in today. The economic crisis, starting in 1996, has been characterized by the lack of comprehensive support for the land reform program which offered compensation to white farmers for the loss of their farms to landless peasants. Contributing to the crisis, in addition to the dismal failure of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), are an ever-increasing defence expenditure in the absence of war, the unbridled, huge government deficits caused by unbudgeted payments to the 1970s war veterans, the controversial government involvement in the war in Congo, as well as by rampant corruption.

The government's decision to forcibly remove Zimbabwe's 4,500 white farmers from 85 per cent of the most fertile land in the country, only served to exacerbate the already deteriorating economic situation.

The resettlement of government cronies -- war veterans who had fought in the country's liberation struggle against white British colonial and white minority rule, all in the name of addressing the injustices of the past -- has resulted in the collapse of the agriculture sector, which constituted the backbone of the country's economy and was a major source of hard currency for the government.

The International Monetary Fund's withdrawal of crucial balance of payments support following Mugabe defaulting on loan obligations -- and the imposition of sanctions by the United States and the European Union because of Harare's illegal removal of white farmers -- were the last nails in the coffin for the economy. The government furthermore resorted to printing more money, which it really did not have in the first place while, and at the same time devalued the country's currency.

Government's mismanagement of the economy did not go down well with the country's increasingly impatient citizens, whose frustrations often fall on deaf ears where government is concerned.

The MDC, the country's only credible opposition group, consistently failed to effectively challenge Mugabe's leadership which, in part, was due to the regime's relentless crushing of opposition groups and the mass arrests of opposition leaders. In addition, the seriously flawed presidential and parliamentary elections of the past, as well as deepening divisions and infighting that have plagued the MDC since October 2005, have caused the situation to deteriorate even further. The current division within the MDC began over differences in strategy regarding the party's participation in the November 2005 senate elections.

With a sick economy, repressive governance and a fractured opposition, there is growing concern that the tension could escalate to uncontrollable proportions in the coming weeks.

Mugabe's recent announcement that he has no intention of stepping down is an unfortunate development that calls for fundamental questions to be answered by the international community, if it hopes to avoid looming political instability in the region.

Amid the political impasse and Mugabe's attempts to manipulate the electoral process and prolong his party's grip on power well after 2010, the international community and the MDC are finding themselves having to answer some fundamental questions that could have a lasting impact on the future of the country. There are a growing number of party cadres who would like to see the MDC adopt a more confrontational and extra-parliamentary opposition, which would represent a shift in tactics away from its peaceful engagement with the government in the past.

Eventually, a stalemate situation in Zimbabwe is not likely to be resolved by domestic resistance in some form or another. In the event of a national revolt, such as the 1998 food riots, the MDC would have to reunite in order to play the role of a responsive and stabilizing force, capable of managing and containing the subsequent violence.

A parallel response, aimed at securing a retirement plan for Mugabe, while engaging the moderate forces in the top leadership structures aimed at the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of free and fair presidential elections in 2008, would go a long way to ushering in a new era of democracy and civil liberties, while setting the stage for that long-awaited economic recovery

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.