The death of acclaimed novelist Chinua Achebe led to an outpouring of grief and tributes Friday in his native Nigeria, a country whose government he harshly criticised over the years.
The 82-year-old, who was confined to a wheelchair after a 1990 accident and lived in the United States in recent years, had an uneasy relationship with Africa’s most populous country, twice rejecting an offer to grant him one of the nation’s highest honours.
He had regularly lashed out at the corruption and misrule in a nation with Africa’s biggest oil industry, but where deep poverty persists and basic infrastructure is still missing, including a paltry supply of electricity.
Nonetheless, Nigerian officials, including President Goodluck Jonathan, issued statements in praise of the author of the seminal novel “Things Fall Apart”.
Jonathan said Achebe “fearlessly spoke the truth as he saw it and became, as he advanced in age, a much revered national icon and conscience of the nation who will be eternally honoured for his contributions to national discourse as well as the immense fame and glory he brought to his fatherland.”
A spokesman for the governor of Nigeria’s Anambra state, where Achebe was born, said “the world has lost one of the finest writers, and Africa has lost a literary gem.”
“The governor is trying to travel to the United States to take part in the arrangement of his burial,” Mike Udah said.
While he was known worldwide mostly for “Things Fall Apart,” a novel about the collision of British colonialism and his native Igbo culture in southeastern Nigeria, Achebe also wrote non-fiction that took aim at Nigeria’s problems.
His essay “The Trouble With Nigeria,” published in 1983, was one example.
He rejected national awards in 2004 and 2011.
In 2004 in particular, he spoke of myriad problems and said the state of the country was “too dangerous for silence.”
While putting him at odds with Nigerian authorities, such stances won him praise and admiration among activists, fellow writers and reformers.
Nigerians flooded Twitter with tributes on Friday as news of his death spread.
Tolu Ogunlesi, a young Nigerian poet and journalist, tweeted that Achebe “wrote and did great things. One of the greatest: twice (2004 & 2011) turning down Nigeria’s dubious national ‘honours’.”
He has served as an inspiration to a long list of writers, including Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 35, whose acclaimed novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” depicted the country’s 1967-70 civil war.
Adichie and Achebe are both Igbos from Nigeria’s eastern region, which sought to secede from the country largely in response to the massacres of Igbos in the north, leading to the war.
Adichie has called his praise of her work “the validation of a writer whose work had validated me.”
Damian Opata, former head of the English department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where Achebe once taught, said “we are in sorrow here in the department.”
“He was my teacher, and later my colleague lecturer,” he said. “His humility knew no bounds.”
Chima Anyadike, head of English department at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, called Achebe “one of the best minds that I have ever come across.”
It is unclear if Achebe will now be buried in Nigeria following his death in the United States, though he has left a huge legacy.
Ken Saro Wiwa Jr, whose father was a renowned environmental activist infamously executed under the regime of dictator Sani Abacha in 1995, remembered that Achebe was among those who defended him.
“To have someone who has respect to stand up for the voice of justice was very, very important,” said Wiwa Jr, now an adviser to the Nigerian president.
He noted that Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, along with Nelson Mandela and Achebe were among those who sought to intervene.
“Between the three of them, those are three people who represent everything that we want Africa to be,” he said.
“When he (Achebe) came on board, it was of course a great sense of comfort.”
Speaking of Achebe’s most famous novel, Wiwa Jr said “‘Things Fall Apart’ was an affirmation of African values … what those values were and how enduring they can be.”
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