What ultimately got to Lincoln Shenge was not the meager pay or the long hours that he puts in at this city's main hospital. It wasn't the constant shortages of even the most basic medical supplies: soap, clean towels, surgical gloves. The young doctors managed that well enough, and Shenge even learned how to make do without painkillers, warning patients on the operating table that they "would just have to be brave."

In the end, Shenge and the other 600 doctors went on strike because none of them could bear to lose another patient needlessly while the government spends at least $3 million a month to fight a war in neighboring Congo that hardly anyone here seems to want.

"The doctors, we can't even afford a car," said Shenge, 23. "When I get paged by the hospital for an emergency call, I have to flag down a [bus] and just hope and pray that there's no other passengers on board who have to be dropped off ahead of me. We've all lost patients that way. Our government has got to get its priorities straight."

With inflation soaring, a quarter of its 12 million people infected with AIDS and two-thirds living in poverty, Zimbabwe's widespread suffering represents this country's greatest test of faith since a civil war wrenched it from British rule 19 years ago. Never before has this southern African country so publicly questioned the autocratic leadership of its founding father, President Robert Mugabe, whose rebel militia toppled the British colony known as Rhodesia.

A coalition of labor unions, churches and civic groups have formed the country's first opposition party, which is challenging Mugabe's governing party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, in next year's parliamentary elections. A grass roots effort to rewrite the constitution that gives Mugabe unchecked authority has led to a national outpouring of political grievances, gathering so much momentum that government officials have tried to co-opt the process.

And the emergence of a critical, independent press allows no misstep to go unnoticed, reinforcing almost daily the popular image of the government as a corrupt ruling elite, whose indifference to ordinary citizens is a betrayal of the independence movement that earned Zimbabwe the world's admiration more than two decades ago.

"The economic and social crisis is so unprecedented that everyone realizes we need a change, but every time we talk about the future, they bring up the past," said Morgan Tsvangirai, a labor unionist who heads the Movement for Democratic Change, the newly formed opposition party. "They've remained arrogant, locked in a time warp, unwilling to hear dissent, unable to come up with new ideas, unaccountable for their corruption and failings. We need a new vision. The liberator has become a liability."

Dissatisfaction with Mugabe is not new. Periodic uprisings in the form of labor strikes, student protests and even small-scale riots have been part of Zimbabwe's civic culture for several years.

But Mugabe's decision more than a year ago to send 10,000 troops to Congo to help defend President Laurent Kabila's autocratic government from foreign-backed rebel forces has hardened attitudes and formed the first droplets of a revolution. Despite Mugabe's contention that the military commitment is necessary to defend a neighbor and investment partner from aggressors who could further destabilize southern Africa, very few believe that Zimbabwe can afford the war. In a nationwide survey last year, 70 percent of respondents said they opposed the country's military involvement in Congo.

The government's proposal last month to introduce an "AIDS tax" on all payroll costs has been condemned by business, labor and civic organizations who say that no additional levy would be necessary were it not for the 58 percent increase in the Defense Ministry's budget. "Why bother putting out a fire next door," said Andrew Mutandwa, a former Mugabe spokesman who now works for an AIDS awareness group, "when your own house is on fire."

Said John Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe political science professor last month, "The Congo is a big rock that Mugabe has tied to the country. It's heavy and bound to take many down."

The fissures in Zimbabwe represent Africa's maturing efforts to find its own way in the generation following the liberation of most of the continent from its European rulers. The emergent states, scholars and diplomats say, have essentially mapped out three different roads leading toward a post-colonial world, with nations like South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique moving toward economic growth and democracy. But states like Congo and Angola are plunging deeper into catastrophic civil wars and economic ruin, and other nations, like Zimbabwe, seem stalled by poor governance and undeveloped democracies.

"Leaders run out of ideas and legitimacy but hang on nonetheless, taking repressive measures to compensate for those two necessary but fading virtues," said William Zartman, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. "Mugabe is by now a rotten gift to his country, yet there is no legal and practicable way to retire him. The lesson is again one in full support of democracy. Democracy does not guarantee good results, but it does guarantee the removal of bad ones."

Mugabe's office did not return a reporter's phone calls, but Mugabe has told reporters previously that requirements of international donors, particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are largely responsible for the expansion of poverty in Zimbabwe. And he has resisted all suggestions that his time has passed.

"I know the door through which I came into politics," the 75-year-old Mugabe said earlier this year, "and I know the door I should use to get out of politics."

Mugabe's installation of free-market reforms over the past eight years has appeased international donors but done little else. Undermined by an increasingly competitive business climate, halting efforts to privatize state enterprises and crumbling infrastructure, Zimbabwe has lost almost 40 percent of its manufacturing sector over the past decade. And since the currency collapsed two years ago, prices for food, fuel and other goods have risen by almost 70 percent, a record high.

Wages have failed to keep pace, triggering a series of strikes by public-sector employees. When the doctors ended their six-week strike earlier this month, in return for government assurances that their salaries would be reviewed and the national health budget raised, 9,000 nurses walked out. They have since returned to work.

But it is not so much that things seem to be going so badly. Rather, it is that many people here don't believe that the government is even trying to improve conditions.

Only public outrage stopped Mugabe's cabinet members this fall from approving a 182 percent raise for themselves. And Mugabe's lavish homes, tailored suits and frequent travels have begun to grate on his constituents' nerves.

"The week that the hospitals shut down because all the doctors went on strike, there were pictures on television of Mugabe attending a wedding in Malawi," said Mutandwa. "People are asking: 'Does anyone even care what's happening to us?' "

Any such criticism would have seemed heretical a decade ago. Following Zimbabwe's independence, Mugabe's newly formed government embarked on an ambitious effort to strengthen health and education for indigenous Africans whose welfare had been ignored by the colonial government. His socialist health care and education policies made Zimbabwe's public hospitals and schools among the continent's best.

But many of those gains have been reversed in recent years as funding for health and education has been slashed, in part to comply with donors' requirements for financial aid.

"Mugabe is like a silent movie star, said one Western diplomat. "He was good in his day. But we've got the talkies now."

Zimbabwe at a Glance

Population

11.2 million (1999)

12.4 million (2025 projected)

Life expectancy: 40 years

Fertility rate: Four children per woman

Living standards

Annual income per person $720

Poverty (income below $2 a day) 68%

Population without safe water 21%

Population without sanitation 48%

Population without health services 29%

Physicians 1 per 6,909 people

Television 12 sets per

1,000 people

Telephones 1 per 71 people

Economy

Gross domestic product (1997) $8.2 billion

Foreign direct investment (1987) $70 million

Official development aid 4.1 % of GDP

$32 per person (1990)

$29 per person (1997)

Foreign debt (1997) 49% of GNP

Defense

1998 defense budget $471 million

Armed forces 39,000

SOURCES: World Bank, United Nations, Military Balance

CAPTION: A security guard walks through the remains of a looted shopping center in Harare, an example of the recent civil unrest that has plagued the government of Robert Mugabe.

CAPTION: Congo President Laurent Kabila and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are close allies, but Mugabe's support of Kabila's government in the war in Congo elicits criticism for diverting funds from a beleaguered economy.