Authorities in Nigeria's Lagos state have acknowledged that at least 103 protesters died in clashes with security forces during 2020 protests over police brutality, a higher figure than previously given.
State officials also said they will conduct a mass burial for the bodies, which they say haven't been claimed by relatives despite public announcements.
Survivors and rights groups accuse authorities of trying to cover up the true extent of the casualties and crimes committed by security forces and are calling for an investigation.
Human rights group Amnesty International is among those calling for a new probe into the October 2020 deaths of protesters and told VOA Monday that it is investigating the government's claims.
On Sunday, the Lagos state government said it plans to bury 103 people who died in the state during the various protests and relieve overcrowding in the morgue.
The official statement came after a memo about the planned mass burial was leaked to the media. Activists are now accusing authorities of trying to cover up the extent of the casualties at the Lekki toll gate, the site of a heated clash between protesters and military forces.
Authorities say bodies unclaimed
In response to critics, Nigerian government officials said Monday the bodies to be buried were rounded up from various clashes that erupted across the state, not solely at the toll gate.
Lagos state officials said critics are trying to "misinform the public, stir sentiment and cause disaffection against the Lagos State government."
Authorities said the measure was a routine exercise to decongest the public morgue and that the bodies remained unclaimed for nearly three years after being deposited there despite public notices. Authorities added that none of the bodies were retrieved from the Lekki toll gate incident.
Aminu Hayatu is Amnesty International's lead conflict and crises researcher in Nigeria.
"The leaked memo has really triggered our intention to revisit this case of police brutality, especially [given] the fact that we're the first that came out to expose during the End SARS [protests] the nature of [the] army's assault on protesters and the eventual killing of some of them which was denied by the Nigerian government," said Hayatu. "We have just been vindicated by the leaked memo."
Lekki toll gate protest
In October 2020, thousands of young Nigerians poured onto the streets for two weeks to demand an end to what they called "systemic police brutality" and the notorious SARS unit of the police.
The protests climaxed at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos on October 20 before security forces arrived and opened fire on protesters.
In late 2020, during a hearing of an independent panel of inquiry, the military initially denied being at the toll gate, then later admitted soldiers were deployed — who fired blanks in the air— to disperse the crowd.
End SARS activist Obianuju Iloanya cast doubt on authorities' claim that the newly discovered victims were not from the toll gate shooting.
"All of this is a cover up, if we check we might even see bullet wounds on them proving that they were victims of [the] 2020 massacre," said Illoanya. "So this is a clear case of covering up for the police and inadequacies of the government. This was a figure not made public for a long time, it is unfair, it is unjust."
Hayatu said human rights must always be respected by authorities.
"Amnesty is insisting that human rights must be respected in all the ramifications whenever the government has a business to engage the civilians," said Hayatu.
Nigerian officials had previously said 51 civilians and 18 security personnel were killed during the unrest in Lagos and other parts of the country.
The government officially disbanded the SARS police unit in 2020 — but activists say the unit continues to operate in secret, a claim that VOA could not independently confirm.