Dozens of parents gathered at a school in northwestern Nigeria's Kaduna state to receive the first group of students released by their abductors after being held in captivity in a forest for nearly a month.
Prior to their reunion with their children, the parents prayed on the same school grounds for the release of all 121 schoolchildren kidnapped by an armed gang on July 5 from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna.
The release of 28 students was possible after intensive negotiations, according to Joseph Hayab, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Kaduna and one of the negotiators. Though he was initially hesitant to announce the ransom amount, he later stated that the parents had agreed to most of the gunmen's demands in exchange for the children's release, including extra food.
"We are hopeful that more will be released soon and eventually all the students," he said.
Hayab's disclosure contradicted the government's claim that economic gains are encouraging the country's mass kidnappings and school attacks.
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Government issues warning against negotiating ransom
In May, President Muhammadu Buhari warned state governors against dealing with kidnappers or paying ransoms.
He issued the warning as state officials announced that they were in negotiations with an armed group that had abducted 136 pupils from an Islamic school in Tegina, a north-central town of Niger state. The children were freed days after an unspecified amount of money was paid as ransom, according to local media reports.
Parents of private university students in Kaduna state paid about N180 million Nigeria naira (about $450) and gave eight new motorcycles to gunmen who abducted their children on April 20, local Punch newspaper reported.
Five of the students were killed by the kidnappers before the ransoms were paid, putting increasing pressure on the parents to honor the kidnappers' demands during the negotiations.
Despite the government's repeated denials, two top security officials admitted that state authorities frequently paid ransoms to non-state armed groups to free kidnapped students.
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Ransom payments incentivize gangsters
"Authorities often paid ransoms if the negotiations required it. This is because the government is also conscious and sympathetic to the concerns of the parents. Nobody wishes his or her children to remain in abductors' custody," one of the officials told Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity.
Gunmen are frequently attacking schools and educational institutions as about 2,000 students were kidnapped in the country's northern region between January and July.
Armed groups are increasingly targeting schools and easy prey to extract maximum ransom, according to Mojeed Alabi, Lagos-based education editor at Premium Times, the country's leading online news outlet.
"Attacking schools and abducting a large number of students at once is easier than burgling people's homes. They believe they will get more money and a larger number of people with whom to negotiate a ransom. Sadly, our schools are vulnerable," he told Anadolu Agency.
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He asked the authorities to put in place measures to protect children from armed kidnapping gangs.
Before the attacks and mass abductions, Nigeria had around 10.5 million out-of-school children, according to government figures. If the government does not act quickly, Alabi believes things will get worse.
The kidnapping of 276 female students at a public school by Boko Haram terrorists on April 14, 2014 in the remote northeastern town of Chibok set off a sequence of mass kidnappings and school attacks across the country.
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According to Geoffrey Njoku, a communication specialist with UNICEF, schools and vulnerable children are being targeted for financial gain.
"It is obvious that those who perpetrate these attacks benefit from them in one way or the other," he stated.
He believes that recent reports of student kidnappings and ransom payments are encouraging the gangsters involved in such heinous crimes.
He said UNICEF is supporting girls' education in the country's northern region, where attacks on schools are on the rise.
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Amid an escalation in school attacks, a project funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is being proposed to start online education for one million schoolgirls in the region, according to Njoku.
Defense Minister Bashir Magashi said the government is working hard to improve security in the country in order to prevent school attacks.
"The new additions to the fleets of the Nigerian Air Force jets are expected to boost the capabilities to combat the threats," Magashi said last month while inspecting the six newly acquired Super Tucano fighter jets in Abuja, the nation's capital.