Dereje Wordofa

is regional director of Africa for the American Friends Service Committee

The presence of Secretary of State John Kerry at this month's 50th-anniversary celebration of the Organization of African Unity is an important opportunity to set a new course in U.S. relations with African nations. U.S. policies can make or break the great progress the continent is making in reducing armed conflict and increasing peaceful transitions to power.

The potential for peace and development in Africa is closer to fruition than at any time in recent history. Yes, the challenges of building credible, effective institutions for conflict resolution, reconciliation, and sustainable development will remain daunting. However, the search for sustainable peace can succeed with recognition and support for the civil-society organizations reknitting the fabric of resilient, thriving societies.

Organizations in Somalia helped communities endure decades of civil war by providing food, medical care, conflict resolution, and livelihoods. They remain key stakeholders for peace, security, and development in Somalia and Africa as a whole. And much of their value comes from their impartiality and local knowledge.

The peaceful resolution of conflict cannot take place without engaging all parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, U.S. laws prevent peacemakers from engaging with communities where blacklisted groups are operating, such as with Al- Shabaab in south-central Somalia. Such legal barriers frustrate efforts by communities to use inclusive processes to find nonviolent solutions to conflict and reclaim their youth, who have turned to these groups as a source of employment.

The United States should not only remove these legal hurdles to peacemaking, but also step up support for civil-society efforts. In conflicts where social and economic drivers have entangled local communities, the way out can never be accomplished by military means. Each drone attack fuels new anger and recruits. Military aid to neighboring nations prolongs conflicts. Affected communities are asking for their family members back. They want a peaceful future through dialogue, mediation, and social reconciliation, not further violence and destabilizing military aid.

In the decade to come, Africa is poised for leaps forward through political transformation, entrepreneurial innovations, the wise shepherding of resources, and the development of a sustainable infrastructure. U.S. engagement with the continent should recognize and support Africa's optimism for its future and sustainable approaches to growth in the 21st century. The United States should approach African nations as essential partners in the global quest for shared, sustainable human security over the decades to come.