Nigeria's future depends on how its religious groups see each other

The development of Nigeria with its population of some 150 million people, oil reserves, and an abundance of entrepreneurial spirit, is arguably critical for the future of sub-Saharan Africa. It has had more than its fair share of misfortunes: civil war, serial military coups, tyrannical military government, spectacular corruption and all the downsides of its black gold economy. But today Nigeria is facing a new challenge. It comes from the confluence of three muddy streams in our contemporary globalised world: persistent poverty in the midst of affluence, the growing power of religion to boost and legitimise political ambition, and different forms of religious extremism threatened by modernity and led into violence.

Nigeria has the assets to deal with this crisis. Entrepreneurial skills that can otherwise spill over into corruption can be channelled towards social responsibility and effective action towards the countless young people so readily caught up in violence because they are unemployed or underemployed. The corporate giants involved in Nigeria's extractive interests have a wealth of creative talent that could be directed towards the country's core social problems.

But with terrorist attacks on churches and cathedrals and subsequent lethal reprisals against Muslims, these assets are themselves being challenged. In that context a large population divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians in a multitude of states, is in one respect a potential formula for unmanageable conflict. But in many parts of the country a traditional African tolerance has made intermarriage and good inter-faith relations, not least within families, commonplace. Moreover, the different faith communities are blessed with some outstanding leaders who recognise the ambiguous quality of religion in building social harmony and are committed to making their faith and their communities a force for national unity and the common good.

The present situation puts an enormous responsibility on Nigerian schools. The way young people are taught to see other young people of a different faith is a critical element in eliminating the preconditions for communal violence. The experience of many countries suggests that at the heart of what makes a harmonious society is the implementation of a shared commitment to communication.

Communication is about telling your story without fear, without aggression and knowing how to listen to the other's story. It is about being able to participate as an interlocutor. It is a religious principle in the sense that communication is what makes humanity what it is, not warring gangs in conflict communicating only by violent acts but people living together, sharing the co-existence of different identities – national, gender, football teams, faiths, telling their stories.

That is why we launched our Faith Foundation religion reconciliation programme last week with Tony Blair and Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury designate alongside all Nigeria's senior religious leaders and the president.

Faiths are all about communication. For Muslims, Mohammed is rasul, a messenger, the embodiment of the most important imaginable communication of the Qur'an. For Christians, Jesus Christ is the word of God, the most important communication imaginable to humanity. Children need to be able to understand their faith and communicate it, and to comprehend what children of other faiths are communicating to them about their belief and practice. That is why diversity is enriching, not a threat, and why the challenge facing Nigeria today is not just a problem for government but a problem for schools and universities, business and corporate leaders, religious leaders and those in their communities desperate to find the path to peace and to move back from religious conflict.

The challenge is also for the international community. Yes, Africa and Africans must solve Africa's problems. But what Nigeria is facing is a global problem. The three muddy streams converge in a river of civil conflict that does not stop at borders. There has to be international solidarity. The bad sort of religion crosses frontiers and is mutually supportive. The bad sort of religion can only communicate with violence and calls to violence. The good sort of religion must be no less persuasive, no less international in its vision, and it must bring hope.