A man reads a newspaper featuring a headline on Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's death, at a roadside in Calabar, on March 23, 2013. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who has been called the father of modern African literature, has died at the age of 82 in the United States. He published five novels, as well as collections of essays, poems, short stories, and a memoir about his experiences during Nigeria's 1967-1970 civil war. (AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI)

I happened to be in Nigeria when Professor Chinua Achebe quietly passed away last week at the age of 82 after a brief illness, and I personally witnessed the widespread shock and grief that followed the announcement of his death.

And while the general public is slowly coming to terms with the unfortunate news, leading public figures are lavishly praising Achebe’s impact and legacy, sometimes using deifying phrases that would have made Achebe – who was not prone to hubris  – wince if they had been uttered in his presence.

Memories of Achebe

“He was,” according to President Goodluck Jonathan, “legendary,” “frank, truthful and fearless,” “the conscience of the nation” and “an artist of the very first rank” who brought “immense fame and glory to his fatherland…and will live forever in the hearts and minds of present and future generations.”

Rotimi Amaechi, the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum has described him as a “giant.” Simon Kolawole, a onetime newspaper editor, has compared him to a majestic iroko tree. Emeke Ihedioha, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, regards him as a “hero and towering titan of inestimable proportion,” while Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who heads the main opposition party, has said via a spokesman that “Achebe’s words were like the arrows of God.”

The Nigerian political establishment’s eagerness to identify with Achebe is ironic, given that he despised the guys who run the show so profoundly that he firmly rejected, on two occasions (in 2004 and 2011), the awards they offered him, on the grounds that he didn’t feel able to accept honors from governments that had not only woefully failed to address problems like poverty but actively promoted socio-economic chaos and electoral thuggery.

Achebe, an austere yet passionate intellectual and activist who is frequently and justifiably described as “the Founding Father of African literature,” became an internationally-acclaimed author and citizen of the world decades ago.

When I went to the American embassy earlier on today to renew my visa, the young white diplomat who checked my application form took note of the fact that I am a journalist and asked me, in a friendly fashion, what I write about.

When I told him that I write about all sorts of stuff but was currently compiling an article about a famous African writer, he asked me whether the famous African writer was Chinua Achebe. When I said “yes,” his eyes lit up and he enthusiastically informed me that Achebe was one of his favorite authors.

The international influence of Achebe

Achebe’s standing definitely extended far beyond the shores of Nigeria, but he will always be most strongly linked to the land of his birth because it was the primary focus of his fiction, poetry and political commentaries.

Nigeria, a humid hothouse of contradictions whose coastline borders the oil-rich Gulf Of Guinea, made Achebe the gentleman he was, provided him with his first legion of fans and frustrated and inspired him in equal measure.

Achebe went from bitterly criticizing European colonialists to sadly and angrily despairing of the inept and increasingly corrupt African Independence advocates who took over from them and then betrayed entire populations.

Having dwelled on the fact that Christian missionaries persuaded us to embrace their version of spiritual salvation and abandon our own religious traditions, he wryly and wittily observed that when we closed our eyes to pray on their terms, we didn’t realize that when we re-opened our eyes, their imperial administrator brethren would have snatched our collective patrimony.