An American think tank with close ties to government will next week fete Ali Bongo, the president of Gabon, as an “exceptional global citizen” despite his brutal crackdown on opposition supporters who accused him of stealing last month’s election.
Mr Bongo, who has been president since 2009, will receive a Global Citizen Award from the Atlantic Council during a glittering reception in New York. It is not known whether he will risk leaving Gabon to accept in person.
The award is given to “individuals who have made exceptional and distinctive contributions to strengthening the transatlantic relationship”.
Mr Bongo is a celebrated environmentalist who has befriended fellow campaigners including the Prince of Wales.
Gabon has until now been viewed as an island of stability in a volatile region often characterised by authoritarian leaders and human rights abuses.
A country of just 1.6 million citizens on the cusp of central and west Africa, it has large oil reserves and pristine forests that are home to large populations of some of the continent’s most prized species, notably elephants.
Gabon held a temporary seat on the UN Security Council during the Libya crisis in 2011 and was pivotal in securing backing for sanctions against Col Muammar Gadaffi and a no-fly zone over the country.
Mr Bongo, whose father was president before him, is also thought to have the ear of many regional power-brokers, and was the first African leader to call for Col Gadaffi to step down.
The US also views Gabon as a bulwark against terrorism by Boko Haram and other extremist groups to the north of its border, and along with Britain, has provided training to its security forces.
Both countries may however have to rethink their relationship with Gabon’s president.
However, his main rival, Jean Ping, insisted he had in fact won the election and called his supporters on to the streets.
Mr Bongo’s security forces responded with ferocity, rounding up an estimated 1,000 people, allegedly killing at least five, and bombing the opposition headquarters in a midnight attack after parliament was set on fire by demonstrators.
International observers including the United States, the European Union and the former colonial power France have called for a recount.
“Elections must credibly reflect the will of the people,” said John Kirby, the US government spokesman. “We call on the Gabonese Government to release results for each individual polling station.”
European Union election observers have pointed to the “anomaly” of a 99 per cent turnout in Mr Bongo’s home province, with 95 per cent of those votes going to him.
Mr Ping, writing in The New York Times , claimed Mr Bongo’s “deadly and dangerous tantrum” had cost at least 12 lives.
“Ali Bongo Ondimba, is using our national security forces — armed with valuable military weaponry provided by the United States to fight terrorism — against our own people,” he said.
Mr Bongo has rejected suggestions of a recount, saying the opposition must appeal to the Constitutional Court, a body they claim is biased towards the incumbent.
“African governments are often accused of not respecting the law,” he said. “For once we’re respecting the law and we’re being told to circumvent it – it’s strange.”
The Washington-based Atlantic Council, which employs a number of former officials and ambassadors, told the Telegraph it would not rescind Mr Bongo’s award.
“The Atlantic Council is honouring Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba for his life of public service and efforts to improve the lives of the people of Gabon – demonstrated through his economic and infrastructure reforms – and his consistent campaign to preserve Africa’s national treasures and put an end to poaching,” said Nicole Hobbs, a spokesman for the Council.