We ignore Africa at our peril.
In vital resources--oil, copper, diamonds, gold, timber and more--the continent is rich beyond imagination. Indeed, Africa is more breadbasket than basket case. The United States is projected to import some 25 percent of its oil from Western Africa in coming years.
While the US media pays Africa little attention, the Chinese are leaders by far in the mad dash for a share of the continent's natural treasures. Using some of the money it makes in trade with the United States, China is investing heavily across Africa, building highways, hotels, bridges and dams, seeking to lock up long-term access to resources and the good will of African leaders.
The United States is way behind. The African continent will only become more important in the future. The whole world has a stake in what happens there.
For decades Africa was little more than a pawn in the cold war; before that it was the playing field of competing imperialist nations. Now it is a key geographic territory in the fight against terror after Al Qaeda blew up embassies in Somalia and Kenya. The continent's mineral resources reinforce its strategic importance.
Africa matters. Therefore it is in the United States' and the world's best interest that Africa's fledgling democracies succeed so that true democracy might spread across the vast continent.
That is why I recently spent five days in Côte d'Ivoire, meeting with its current president and opposition leaders and addressing youth groups and religious figures, as the West African nation prepares for a crucial presidential election on November 29--a day that will go a long way in determining the future of democracy in the region.
For most of its forty-nine-year history as an independent nation, Côte d'Ivoire has been a shining light of a dimly viewed West Africa. Politically stable, culturally tolerant and economically vigorous, Côte d'Ivoire was and is a regional powerhouse.
As one US Embassy official described the nation of almost 19 million people to me, Côte d'Ivoire has been to its neighbors what the United States is to Mexico and Central America. "This is where people went to find work," the official said. "If this economy gets shut down, you will see a dramatic impact on the entire region."
Côte d'Ivoire produces 40 percent of the world's cocoa and is a major exporter of bananas, coffee, cotton, palm oil, pineapples, rubber, timber and tuna. In recent years, according to US Embassy figures, petroleum exports have risen significantly, and petroleum is now the country's largest foreign exchange earner.
As I toured its sprawling port, the second largest in Africa, I saw five cargo ships loaded with fruit and vegetables headed to Europe.
Abidjan, its biggest city once known as "Little Paris," was a popular destination for tourists from the United States and Europe for years. But then there was a coup in 1999, followed by UN sanctions, another coup attempt in 2001 and a brutal civil war in 2002 that split the country between North and South, pushing Côte d'Ivoire to the brink of disaster.
Today, the shooting has stopped. But the nation remains on the brink.
A transparent and fair election is the key to restoring Côte d'Ivoire to its place among the family of nations. A world-class democracy means world-class investment.
That was my message as I met separately with President Laurent Gbagbo and leaders of the two opposition parties who are vying for the Presidential Palace. I had a long and fruitful discussion by phone with Henri Konan Bédié, a former president running for his old job, and I sat down with representatives of Alassane Ouattara, who was out of the country seeking medical treatment in Paris.
As I made clear whenever and to whomever I spoke, I was there not to support a candidate but to support the process of democracy.
In addressing a Pan-African youth conference and a meeting of Muslim and Christian religious leaders, I asked the people and the candidates to agree to three basic principles.
1.) Campaign diligently and fairly.
2.) Use the language of reconciliation, not destruction.
3.) Publicly pledge to support the winner.
The will to build a great country must be stronger than personal rapaciousness. The winner must win with grace; the losers must lose with dignity. All must support and serve Côte d'Ivoire.
I also sat down with the prime minister, Guillaume Soro. Three years ago he was the leader of the rebellion in the North. Now he is overseeing the election, working night and day to heal his nation. He invited me back to act as a monitor of the election, which I intend to do.
I reminded him and everyone else I met that we in the United States were once divided between North and South, locked in our own bloody civil war. After that war, we suffered through generations of American apartheid. It took a century before the right of every American citizen to vote in elections was protected by law.
Through the depth of that pain, Americans are learning to live together across lines of class, gender and race.
America rose from the ashes of pain and division. Côte d'Ivoire can rise as well.