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Nigerian-born novelist and poet Chinua Achebe in 2008Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press

Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe, widely seen as a grandfather of modern African literature, has died at the age of 82, publisher Penguin said on Friday.

Achebe made his name more than 50 years ago with his novel Things Fall Apart, about his Igbo ethnic group's fatal brush with British colonialism in the 1800s. It was the first time the story of European colonialism had been told from an African perspective to an international audience.

A spokeswoman for his publisher, Penguin, confirmed his death but had few other details. She said the family would be releasing a statement shortly.

Achebe's early work focused on the social upheavals caused by colonialism in Africa. Things Fall Apart was translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

He later turned his sights on the devastation wrought to Nigeria and Africa by a series of military coups that entrenched kleptocratic dictatorship.

Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987 is set two years after a military coup in an imaginary African country where power has corrupted and state brutality silenced all but the most courageous.

In 1983 he published a pamphlet, The Trouble With Nigeria, which painted a bleak picture of his native country, but also expressed hope that endemic corruption could be ended if it could be made unprofitable for Nigeria's elites.

As a writer, broadcaster and lecturer, Achebe served as a bridge between Africa and the West, and became a yardstick against which generations of African writers have been judged ever since.

Nelson Mandela read his work in prison and once referred to Achebe as a writer "in whose company the prison walls fell down."

"We would like to offer our condolences to the family of Prof. Chinua Achebe, a great African writer and thinker," said Sello Hatang, Spokesperson, Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

A car accident put Achebe in a wheelchair in 1990, after which he wrote no books for more than 20 years. He spent most of his later years in the United States, where he lectured at universities.