The death of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian man of letters and widely acknowledged pioneer of African literature, has brought an overwhelming rain of tributes from all over the world. Achebe died on the night of Thursday, March 21 at a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, after a brief illness, according to family sources. He was 82 years old.
Author of the classic Things Fall Apart (1958), an engrossing story of a heroic man’s struggle with new cultural forces represented as colonialism in modern Nigeria, Achebe wrote four other novels, a collection of stories, a book of poems, four books of essays, a pamphlet, and a memoir, There Was A Country, published in October last year.
Achebe was known internationally for his literary works—Things Fall Apart has been translated into more than forty languages, has sold over thirty million copies, and is required reading in high schools across the United States—but in Nigeria, his country of birth, he was also known as a controversial political figure and a principled founder of institutions.
Born Albert Chinualumogu on November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, in present-day Anambra State, Achebe attended the then-University College, Ibadan, and earned a degree in English.
He later joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos, where he worked for many years, even as the unprecedented success of his first novel in 1958 encouraged him to pursue a career as a writer.
In the next eight years, he published three other novels: No Longer at Ease (1962), Arrows of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966).
The political crises of the mid-1960s, and especially the civil war fought between the Nigerian government and the secessionist southeastern Republic of Biafra affected Achebe’s literary productivity (he was a prominent figure in the leadership of Biafra) and he did not publish another novel until 1987, when Anthills of the Savannah came out. In the intervening period, Achebe wrote poems and essays, and taught at Nigerian and American universities.
He also initiated the founding of the Association of Nigerian Authors, co-founded Nwamife Publishers, a literature imprint, and Okike, a journal of new writing.
During the Second Republic, he joined the left-leaning People’s Redemption Party, and served as its Vice-President. Following a serious automobile accident in 1990, he was paralyzed from the waist down, and settled permanently in the United States.
Achebe’s prose, fictional and nonfictional, is noted for its elegance, its humor, its ability to convey personal conviction, and its grasp of complex irony.
Many (including Achebe) believe Arrow of God, the drama of a priest who abandons his people as a result of his anger over the colonial incursion, to be his most accomplished novel. Things Fall Apart will continue to be read by future generations. His essays are thematically focused works of cultural and political criticism, and often left him open to controversies.
The furor generated by There Was A Country continued until his death. Together, these works constitute his legacy in literary and political terms, and have ensured his immortality.
His account of the civil war may have upset some Nigerians in matters of fact and judgment, but the intellectual and moral challenge it poses should not be ignored.
The problems he confronted remain with us and are worsening. He spoke for millions of people who feel aggrieved in Nigeria.
Although Achebe chose to present the sense of grievance in at times in ethnic terms, we believe that the challenge before Nigerians in positions to effect change is to address these wrongs in terms that cut across ethnic, religious, or regional divisions.