For several weeks this fall, two cargo ships churned somewhere off the coast of West Africa, modern-day Flying Dutchmen caught in a contract storm between a U.S. export company and the govern- ment of Nigeria, with two loads of American corn and wheat intended to feed drought-stricken Nigeri- ans.
The 40,000 tons of corn and wheat were part of a 463,000-ton discount sale to Nigeria made possible by a special congressional program for drought-affected African nations, a combination of gift food and discount sales.
The program provides $90 million in what are called "Whitten funds" after their sponsor, House Appropriations Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.). It was part of a broader aid program for afflicted African countries approved earlier this year.
But the Whitten program has turned out to be another Washington classic of good intentions gone awry, embellished with charges of mismanagement and influence-peddling.
The Whitten program allowed the sale of federally owned corn, wheat and rice to private exporters, who in turn could resell it to 25 countries designated by the Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
The $90 million approved by Congress was to cover the difference between low sale prices and the United States' cost of acquiring the grain.
Bids were sought from companies acting as agents for countries interested in the low-cost sale plan. Nigeria, one of the more affluent nations in the African drought belt, successfully bid through United Export Trading Co. of Gulfport, Miss., on two-thirds of the amount available.
The grain was sold to United Export by the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp., with the expectation that it would be resold to Nigeria.
Nigeria, however, charging unspecified contract violations, refused to allow United Export to unload the first shipments.
"The ball is not in our court . . . . We don't renege on our contractual obligations," said Simeon A. Adekanye, the Nigerian minister-counselor here. Adekanye declined to provide details of his country's allegations.
But Robert Walker, an attorney for the company, said Nigeria "has failed to honor its commitments of contract with United Export . . . . Two shiploads have been sent, but they were not accepted . . . . We have submitted an affidavit to the Nigerian government to assure them there is nothing wrong on this side.
"This thing already has cost United Export, and we recognize it is going to cost a lot more before this is over," Walker said.
"The government only got 80 percent of what it had invested in this grain. And United has to get the grain to Africa -- it has no choice," he added.
Walker said United Export continues to negotiate with Nigeria, even though the USDA has declared the deal canceled.
He also said United Export is trying to arrange sale of its grain, in smaller quantities, to other African nations on the approved U.S. list. A United Export spokesman said the company has sold the load of corn and is lining up a market for the unlanded wheat.
In both cases, United Export will have to reimburse the USDA for full value of the grain, on which the federal subsidy was $22 million.
Nigeria designated United Export as its agent after Roger D. Crooks, the company's president, mounted an intensive sales campaign last summer.
In letters to Nigeria, obtained by The Washington Post, Crooks promised that Rep. Cooper Evans (R-Iowa) would help negotiate a good price at the USDA and seemed to suggest that Whitten would be involved.
USDA and Nigerian officials here indicated that neither Whitten nor Evans played any role in the sales negotiations.
An aide to Evans said the congressman had put Crooks in touch with the USDA but had done nothing more.
Calls for comment to Whitten and aides last week were not returned.
United Export's Walker said he could not explain the letters' references to Whitten and Evans. He said the firm's only contact with Whitten came after Nigeria refused to take delivery, when there was a brief meeting with two Whitten aides.
"There was no involvement of Mr. Whitten. Period. The company's principals didn't even know who Mr. Whitten was," Walker said.
"I suspect the name dropping in those letters was puffery," said a USDA official. "The guy was a salesman, trying to put the best foot forward with Nigeria."
United Export's successful bid for the grain apparently touched off resentment among major trading companies interested in winning contracts.
United Export had no previous grain-trading experience -- a point underscored by a Crooks promise in one of his letters to donate handling, bagging and storing equipment in Lagos if he were named agent.
One industry source said that the cost of such an offer, if fulfilled, would have wiped out the profit that United Export would have made on the deal.
Crooks had proposed that Nigeria pay him a fee of 3.25 percent of the value of the grain -- about $2 million.
One document apparently prepared by a grain-trading company said bids from the usual trading sources were considerably below market levels because of the assumption that the department would allow poorer countries to buy the grain at lower prices.
After Nigeria bid a high price on the entire $90 million, the USDA intervened and required some sales of rice to other eligible nations. New Jersey rice trader Grover Connell complained to Agriculture Secretary John R. Block that the USDA had violated the integrity of its bidding requirements but, he said in a brief interview, "We got some kind of routine answer."
Trade sources also have charged privately that the USDA allowed United Export to bend the terms of its sales agreement by not providing full payment within 10 days and not completing the transaction with Nigeria in 90 days.
Robert Sindt, an official handling the USDA's efforts to settle the dispute with United Export, said that the government's interests are protected, but he said serious questions remain about the company's obligations to the government.
"The sales to Nigeria have been canceled, and we are awaiting the contractor getting back to us to propose alternative sales or customers.
"But one of the realities is that the countries on the eligible list have very little hard currency," Sindt said.
"We're still working our way through this," he added. "It's not gone as smoothly as we anticipated."