The best untold story of the last decade may be the story of Africa. Real income has increased more than 30 percent , reversing two decades of decline. Seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa, and GDP is expected to rise 6 percent per year in the next decade. HIV infections are down nearly 40 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and malaria deaths among children have declined 50 percent . Child mortality rates are falling, and life expectancy is increasing.
This is a moment of great opportunity for Africans. It is also a moment of decision.
The choices that Africans and their leaders make will determine whether a decade of progress leads to an era of African prosperity and stability — or whether Africa falls back into the cycle of violence and weak governance that held back the promise of the continent for far too long.
The challenges are real. Bitter and bloody conflicts are embroiling South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo. Corruption remains rampant; the African Union reports that $148 billion is wasted through corrupt practices each year. Africa needs strong leaders and strong institutions to stand up for human rights, address discrimination against women and minorities, and remove restrictions on freedom of expression.
The United States and African nations have deep historic and economic ties. The U.S. government has invested billions of dollars in health care, leading to real progress in combating AIDS and malaria. Our security forces work with their African counterparts to fight extremism. U.S. companies are investing in Africa through trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a friend, the United States has a role to play in helping Africans build a better future.
Many of the choices are crystal clear. African leaders need to set aside sectarian and religious differences in favor of inclusiveness, acknowledge and advocate for the rights of women and minorities, and they must accept that sexual orientation is a private matter. They must also build on their economic progress by eliminating graft and opening markets to free trade.
The conflict and crises that have held Africa back for too long were evident Friday when I flew into Juba, the capital of South Sudan. I remember arriving in Juba in January 2011 when the people of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence. Even in that moment of jubilation, the threat of ethnic violence loomed just over the horizon.
The violence turned tragically real in December when fighting broke out between forces loyal to the government and militias aligned with a rebel leader. Today we see the echoes of too many earlier conflicts: thousands of innocent people killed, both sides recruiting child soldiers and a country on the cusp of famine.
Led by the U.S. special envoy to South Sudan, Donald Booth, the United States and our partners in Africa have been trying to mediate the conflict. On Friday, when I met with President Salva Kiir, I reminded him of our conversations about his nation’s promise. I urged him to set aside old grudges and reach a settlement with the opposition before that promise is soaked in more blood.
Resolutions of age-old grievances are difficult, but they are possible. For two decades, Africa’s Great Lakes region has endured a crisis as militants and gangs have fought over mineral wealth and ethnic differences. In recent weeks, Angola has demonstrated remarkable leadership in working with other African countries and the State Department’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Russ Feingold, to promote a framework for peace. There is a long way to go, but the progress is real and it represents hope for the region and the continent.
Our role in Africa goes beyond security assistance. We are working to develop the prosperity that is critical to a better future. One aspect of that effort is Power Africa, a public-private partnership conceived by President Obama to pump billions of dollars into the continent’s energy sector and double the number of people with access to electricity.
And we are engaging the promise of a new generation of leaders across Africa. This summer, 500 Africans will come to the United States for the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. The fellowship is part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, providing training, resources and platforms to support leadership development, promote entrepreneurship and connect leaders with one another and the United States. In August, the president will host the first summit between African and U.S. leaders.
Africa can be a beacon for the world: Dramatic transformations are possible, prosperity can replace poverty, cooperation can triumph over conflict. This is tough work, and it requires sober commitment, regional cooperation and a clear vision of a better future. The goal of a prosperous, healthy and stable continent is within reach if Africans and their leaders make the right decisions.
John F. Kerry, a former United States Senator is secretary of state for U.S.