Much of the world’s great promise, and many of the world’s greatest challenges, lie in Africa. The continent is home, on the one hand, to seven of the 10 fastest growing economies on the planet, and has the potential to anchor global wealth production for decades to come. At the same time, parts of it remain home to intractable civil conflict and burgeoning jihadism—threats to the world of a magnitude on par with the continent’s opportunities. Poverty, so deep across its vast expanse, continues to grow even as a narrow band of elites grows even richer. And the struggle of Africa’s poor is no longer confined to African territory: Abject poverty spurs economic migration, posing immense demographic pressures on Europe and North America. 

Scan the continent’s 54 states and a clear pattern emerges: The brightest spots on the map lie in the expanding number of African countries that have set out on a democratic path. Free and fair elections and orderly rotations of power have become the norm in Senegal, Ghana, and other countries. And in Nigeria, home to the largest population in Africa, a certified and transparent electoral process has led to the first-ever peaceful turnover of power in the country’s postcolonial history. In every case thus far, democracy’s success has been a boon not just for a privileged few, but for the majority of the country’s population. Meanwhile, the enduring dictatorships, from Zimbabwe to the Gambia, are like an axis of regression, snaking across the continent. Yet in every country, the yearning for a better future runs deep, and young people who have only lived under autocratic rule are waging peaceful struggles for their political and economic rights. 

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Over the next two years, 16 countries in Africa are slated to hold presidential elections—in several cases, a potential turning point for millions of people wanting for opportunity. It is in the self-interest of democratic societies everywhere that these democratic experiments be encouraged, safeguarded, and nurtured: Given the truism that democracies never go to war with one another, the future of peace and prosperity in Africa hinges on whether these elections lead the way for neighboring countries to follow suit. 

At this pivotal time on the continent, the role of the United States is crucial in tilting the balance in favor of progress. But Americans, by contrast to European powers with a long and fraught history of imperial adventure in Africa, are relatively new to the continent. As the U.S. government, the American private sector, civil society, and philanthropists attempt to chart their own course, there is a steep learning curve to be climbed. There are human networks yet to be built. The subtle gradations of freedom and tyranny on the planet’s largest continent need to be understood and navigated with great care. Americans’ success at doing so will require sustained attention to Africa—and a long-term effort to forge direct relationships between Africans from a variety of sectors and their counterparts in the United States. 

A clear indication that Americans are rising to this challenge is the newly founded NGO, United for Africa’s Democratic Future. The chairman of the group’s advisory board, former Obama National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, Jr., has devoted himself to the project because, in his view, “The firm establishment of democracy is critical to promoting cooperation between African states and expanding shared prosperity throughout the continent.” Jones is lending his voice to the effort to encourage democratic trends in Africa. But his words are intended as much for his fellow Americans as for Africans: He wants to raise awareness in the United States of the role Americans can and must play in supporting African democratic transitions. As a native of Morocco, another African country thoroughly vested in the future of the neighborhood, I’ve decided to join in Jones’s efforts, and urge more Americans to do the same. 

Last week, in an op-ed piece published in Le Monde Afrique, the most popular newspaper on the continent, Secretary of State John KerryJohn Kerry Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' 9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction MORE reassured Africa’s peoples and their leaders that the United States is “committed to provide assistant to achieve [their] aspirations,” inspired by the “legitimate” struggle of the populations “to make their voices heard.” Washington’s success at making good on this pledge, in turn, will require the support of the American people—people in different walks of life and from different professions and pursuits, to enter the fray. Africa needs the American spirit of big dreams and brass tacks—from investors and social entrepreneurs; media visionaries and intellectual luminaries; seasoned professional civil actors and young, idealistic volunteers. Their involvement will be a blessing and a lifeline for hundreds of millions of people. 

Charai is publisher of L'Observateur du Maroc et d’Afrique and Pouvoirs d'Afrique magazines. He is a board director of the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, both in Washington.