An era of increased democratization and political accountability is sweeping across the African continent. With deteriorating economic conditions, growing external support from the Diaspora 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 Zimbabwe's autocratic President Robert Mugabe's 27-year rule.

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. Meanwhile in Harare, Zimbabwe's beleaguered capital, police have imposed a three-month ban on political rallies and protests. These events, amongst many others that have taken place during 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, the country is now finding itself on the fringes of near total state collapse, where it was once regarded as the bread basket 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 1 600% in January, foreign reserves depleted, an unemployment rate of over 80%, more than 3 300 AIDS-related deaths per week and chronic poverty affecting more than 76% 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 approximately 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 a lack of comprehensive support for the land reform programme by offering adequate compensation to white farmers for the loss of their farms to landless peasants; by the dismal failure of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), sponsored by the IMF and the World Bank; by the unjustified expansion of government bureaucracy; by the ever-increasing defence expenditure in the absence of war; by unbridled, huge government deficits caused by unbudgeted payments to the 1970s war veterans; by controversial government involvement in the war in the DRC; as well as by rampant corruption.

The government's decision to forcibly remove Zimbabwe's 4 500 white farmers from 85% 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 a major source of hard currency for the government.

The IMF's withdrawal of crucial Balance of Payments (BOP) support, following Mugabe defaulting on loan obligations; the withdrawal of donor support; and the subsequent imposing of sanctions by the US and the EU 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 did not really have in the first place while, at the same time, devaluing 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 Movement for Democratic Change (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. To date, there seems to be no indication that the rift that has developed within the party would be bridged and that personal differences would be set aside.

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 hoped to avoid looming political instability in the region.

Amidst 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 represents a shift in tactics, away from the peaceful engagement with government in the past.

Eventually, a stalemate situation in Zimbabwe is not likely to be resolved by domestic resistance in some for 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 stabilising 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 of ZANU-PF in talks, 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.