Nigeria native becomes prosecutor in Kansas town
HUTCHINSON, Kan. — In some ways, the newest addition to the Reno County district attorney’s office is much like any other new prosecutor. Fresh out of law school, he’s learning the ropes of his new job while adjusting to life in Hutchinson.
But for 39-year-old Wakil Oyedemi, the path to the local DA’s office has been anything but typical.
For one thing, the native of Nigeria has been to law school twice.
As a law student in Nigeria, he faced pressure from the military regime because of his human rights activism.
Once in the United States, Oyedemi served a stint in the Army with the 1st Infantry Division, including a yearlong deployment to Iraq as a legal affairs specialist, before attending the University of Kansas School of Law to be able to practice law in the U.S.
“He’s a very enthusiastic and eager individual, which was one of the things that attracted me when I interviewed him,” said Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder. “He has a presence that I believe will make him a good prosecutor.”
For his part, Oyedemi said he hopes to serve the interests of justice no matter which side of the aisle he is working — be it from a human rights law firm in Lagos, Nigeria, the Paul E. Wilson Defender Project at KU or prosecuting traffic offenses in Reno County.
Oyedemi also said the warm welcome he has received from Reno County residents has encouraged him to put forth his best efforts as a fledgling prosecutor.
Oyedemi grew up in Oyo, a village of about 130 people in the southwestern part of Nigeria. The son of a food trader and grandson of a Yoruba tribal chieftain, Oyedemi said he graduated at the top of his class in high school but couldn’t afford to attend college in a country where academic merit scholarships are extremely unusual.
He entered an apprenticeship program as a carpenter, building furniture and other items for several years before a family friend and eventual stepfather who owned a shipping company, Isaac Jolapamo, stepped in as a benefactor.
Jolapamo paid for him to enter the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria, to study English. Oyedemi said he initially wanted to be a journalist and write political opinion columns.
“I loved to write, and I wanted to find out what was going on,” Oyedemi said.
By his second year, however, he was encouraged by friends and professors to enter law school — a five-year program in Nigeria. Once again, Jolapamo supported his decision.
“He said he would support me 100 percent,” Oyedemi said.
Jolapamo was eventually driven into exile and his shipping business ruined by the military government, which accused him of financing pro-democracy groups in Nigeria.
It’s been a common theme in Oyedemi’s life. As president of his law school’s student body, he was expelled for his human rights activism and for fighting to maintain student elections at the school.
“The military didn’t want to see any form of human rights activity,” Oyedemi said.
After graduating from law school in 1998, he went to work conducting legal research for a human rights law firm in Lagos. His boss, Fred Agbaje, was subject to frequent harassment from the military authorities, who were constantly trying to arrest him.
“Almost every prominent lawyer in Nigeria at the time got sent to jail or exile,” Oyedemi said.
Despite the challenges, Oyedemi looks back fondly on his time with the firm.
“I felt happy about it because we were helping a lot of clients,” he said. “The human rights situation in Nigeria was extremely bad at the time.”
Oyedemi and his wife immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 after his wife received a green card. Their arrival in the states was somewhat delayed by unfortunate timing — they were in the air on Sept. 10, 2001, and were diverted to Canada after the Sept. 11 attacks, where they languished for about a week before being allowed into Dover, Del.
Oyedemi soon joined the Army, which he saw as a way to continue to work in the legal field. His Nigerian law degree did not allow him to practice in the U.S., but he could work in the military as a legal assistant — while also earning enough to support his wife and two children.
Oyedemi served from 2002 to 2006, including a yearlong deployment with the division known as the “Big Red One” in 2003, where he not only served as a legal assistant but also acted as a liaison between military lawyers and the Iraqi lawyers who were charged with shaping the new government’s legal structure.
Oyedemi, who eventually attained the rank of sergeant, said he looked at his duties as a way to continue his human rights work. He was responsible for reimbursing Iraqis for vehicles and property that were damaged by military actions, as well as compensation for deaths and injuries to noncombatants.
As an added benefit, Oyedemi came away from his deployment with his U.S. citizenship. Foreign nationals who serve in the armed forces are sometimes eligible for an accelerated citizenship process, and both Oyedemi’s battalion commander and brigade commander played an active role in making sure he was granted citizenship before the unit was deployed.
“That’s one reason I work hard — people appreciate it when you work hard for them,” Oyedemi said.
Upon his discharge from active duty, Oyedemi began law school at the University of Kansas, influenced in large part by the friendly reception he received from the school, as well as a shortened, two-year program of study the school has in place for students with a foreign law degree.
He participated in several projects and clinics while at KU, including the Paul E. Wilson Defender project, in which law students represent state and federal prisoners in the appeals process.
As a new prosecutor, Oyedemi said he is responsible for ensuring the fair and just application of the law regardless of which side he is on.
As the newest assistant DA in the office, Oyedemi is charged with handling traffic infractions, misdemeanor cases and felony traffic cases.
He’s already balancing his new responsibilities and attempting to get the hang of the job with visits to his wife and children in Topeka on the weekends, where his wife is finishing her social work degree at Washburn University.
Oyedemi said he has been overwhelmed by the warm welcome he’s received in Reno County, whether from the mechanic who worked on his car or the landlord who helped him out on his rent deposit or the defense attorney who called him after a trial and offered him pointers on improving his closing arguments.
“When you consider people like that, you want to put in your very best,” Oyedemi said. “You want to serve your community in compensation.”
(The Hutchinson, Kan., News)