School pupils from an all-girls’ boarding school in the town of Jangebe were required to attend a different sort of assembly this morning.
Instead of the classroom, they sat in a building that government officials in the Nigerian state of Zamfara use to speak to the media.
They were given a little food, then filmed by members of the media as they ate it. The state police commissioner pronounced them “happy and healthy”.
All 279 pupils had been returned after their mass abduction on Friday reported commissioner, Abutu Yaro, who added that no money had been paid to get them back.
Then, a number of the girls spoke about what they had seen and experienced over three terrifying days in the forest.
“Most of us injured our feet and we couldn’t continue with the trek. [The kidnappers] said they would shoot anybody who does not continue to walk,” said schoolgirl Umma Abubakar.
Another, called Farida Lawali, said: “While we were walking they were hitting us with guns and beating us with a cane and telling us to move on.”
In what has become a deeply unsavoury but fast-growing industry, criminal gangs and bandits have been targeting children attending government-run schools as a means of extracting ransoms for their return.
The abduction of the girls from Jangebe marks the third school-related kidnapping in Nigeria in the last two months.
A total of 344 boys were taken from a school in neighbouring Katsina State in December, then freed after a week.
On Saturday, gunman released 27 teenage boys who were abducted from their school in the central state of Niger.
Security analysists, like Kemi Okenyodo, warn these opportunistic practices will not go away.
“For us to hear that all of them have been released, we are happy about that – but then you say to yourself, where next?
“You are wondering if [the next kidnapping] is going to be in Zamfara, is it going to Niger, moving to Katsina? That is the big issue.”
Such activities are fuelled by the precarious security situation in northern Nigeria and the payment of ransoms by government officials.
Local and state representatives have come under massive pressure, both domestically and internationally, to protect school-age children and gang members have learned how to exploit it.
“You find the government grappling to save face in paying the ransoms to ensure that all the children who are under their watch are returned safely. [They want] to be seen to be responsive, that they care for the citizens, particularly the children.”
Ms Okenyodo fears for a generation of young people who are having their education disrupted as gang members seemingly strike at will.
The governor of Yobe State said he would close schools this week to protect students from kidnappers.
“The challenges of the northern part of the country are about development and [good] governance. What we are seeing is years of deprivation now coupled with insecurity and it is the people who are suffering for it, not the elites, up there.”