A NOVELIST whose concerns are primarily political must overcome several problems before even getting to the proper work at hand, that of writing the novel itself. The first essential is to recognize the fact that the subject matter of the story, and the political issues involved, will not necessarily and automatically be as personally compelling to the reader as they are to the writer. Buchi Emecheta, in her sixth novel, Destination Biafra, is guilty of this basic miscalculation.

She offers a crowded portrait of Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War, which took place from mid-1967 to January 1970. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, herself and now living in London, she is well situated to know this material. Her novel is peopled with English administrative officers, tribal leaders, Nigerian political heads, and common people. Her two central characters are Debbie Ogedemgbe, a young Nigerian woman educated at Oxford, who makes a critical decision to join the army, and her English lover, Alan Grey..Both, inevitably, are caught up in the bloody struggle.

But the book is in trouble from its very inception. Emecheta tells us in her foreword that the novel "is one that simply had to be written." That may be so for the writer herself, but we are readers and we do not have to read it. She also tells us in the foreword that her characters "have been chosen to portray the attitudes of many countries and individuals to the Biafran War." And indeed the novel bears this out. Emecheta's characters are stick figures, mouthpieces for slogans and attitudes, political creatures who seem to exist in no context other than that of their individual political stances.

The sad thing is that Emecheta seems to have tried for nothing better than a book filled with spokesmen rather than living personalities. Her people, she tells us, "are all conjured up by my imagination to suit the message this work carries." There is the problem. She has permitted the intensity of her feelings to overwhelm the novelist's need to observe novelistic values, and the cause she feels so strongly about is poorly served here.