By Emma Farge
DAKAR (Reuters) - Last week while Gabon was awaiting a court ruling on a disputed election result, a U.S. think tank held a black tie dinner in Manhattan at which President Ali Bongo had been meant to receive a "Global Citizen Award".
Facing a dispute at home over the poll with rival Jean Ping, Bongo declined the invite by the Atlantic Council to be lauded along with other award winners for "exceptional and distinctive contributions to strengthening the transatlantic relationship."
But the award demonstrated the president's success in persuading a Washington elite that he is a reformer in a region notorious for corruption and self-serving leadership.
Since he was unable to attend, Bongo will not now receive the award, the Atlantic Council said. A spokeswoman did not reply to a question about whether it stood by its original choice to honor him in light of the election outcome.
Keen to distance himself from his late father Omar Bongo, who relied on oil and business deals with former colonial power France, Ali Bongo organized forums and galas promoting an "Emerging Gabon" that would govern well, engage with a globalized world and protect the environment.
Bongo denies there was anything wrong with the election that handed him a narrow victory, but Africa analysts say the conduct of the poll could hurt his reputation as a reformer.
"Bongo may now struggle to revive his international stature, with global bodies wary of being seen to support somebody whose democratic mandate has clearly weakened," said Roddy Barclay, head of intelligence and analysis at consulting firm africapractice.
The Constitutional Court late on Friday threw out a challenge by Ping and Bongo was being sworn in on Tuesday, extending his family's 50-year rule over the central African nation of 1.8 million.
Yet the opposition and European Union have expressed persistent doubts over the poll, especially a 95 percent vote on a 99.9 percent turnout in Bongo's stronghold of Haut-Ogooue that swung the polls in his favor, and the violent suppression of protests afterwards.
Such questions mean international partners may keep their distance in future, analysts say.
Paul Melly, Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Africa Program, said Bongo's reform pitch would no longer be credible.
"Every time Gabon's government does a road show in future, the credibility of what ministers and officials say will be skewered by questions about a result that most independent observers regard as inconceivable," he said.
OBAMA WAS IMPRESSED
Bongo denies there was anything untoward in the election process.
"When we all decided to run in this election we all knew the rules," he told Reuters in an interview on Saturday. "You cannot change the rules in the middle of the game."
The president, 57, is young compared to veteran "big men" leaders in nearby Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea and speaks English fluently with an American twang. A jazz drummer and pianist, he likes composing music in his spare time, aides say.
Soon after coming to power in 2009, he sought to court investment by reforming his father's heavily France-oriented patronage networks and cutting corruption.
U.S. diplomats noted his inheritance of "the family predilection for fancy cars and other emblems of conspicuous wealth". But they praised his early reforms as a "significant departure from the way business has been conducted for decades", according to cables in 2009 and 2010 released by WikiLeaks.
He impressed U.S. President Barack Obama when he met him at the White House in 2011 --a meeting Bongo clinched partly due to the support he offered during a revolution in Libya and an electoral crisis in Ivory Coast while on the U.N. Security Council, according to former U.S ambassador to Gabon Eric Benjaminson.
"The President thought he was a unique, Francophone African President who was saying the sort of things he was interested in on democratization and education," said Benjaminson, who attended the meeting and who now heads the Gabon-Oregon Center at the University of Oregon.
"He comes across as dynamic and straight-to-the-point which Americans like," he added.
In a sign of Washington's importance for Bongo, Gabon's government has three firms listed with the U.S. Justice Department lobbying for his interests, more than any other sub-Saharan country.
A $1.38 million contract with U.S. law firm Bryan Cave signed in October 2015 aimed to assist Gabon "in connection with its efforts to promote closer diplomatic relations with the United States of America," according to a copy of the contract.
Bryan Cave declined to comment.
It has also hired several international public relations companies, including Richard Attias & Associates which organizes the annual Libreville "New York Forum Africa" - an event showcasing investment opportunities in Africa. Attias did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But it is Bongo's commitment to saving Gabon's rainforests and their elephants that resounded best internationally, winning him a mention from Britain's Prince Charles in a 2014 anti-poaching speech.
"Right from the beginning I called all civil society, NGOs, unions, and enterprises all together so we could ... develop our country while preserving the environment," Bongo told Reuters.
A promotional book for "Green Gabon" shows him walking on a wire suspension bridge above a rainforest canopy.
But Bongo's critics say the reality is at odds with the image he has sought to project.
For instance, the president won a prize from a U.N. agency for improving communications last year, and yet the opposition accuses him of censoring the web to quell protest.
Indeed, since the electoral dispute began, the web has been restricted to the point of shutting down from dusk until dawn.
(Additional reporting by Edward McAllister in Libreville; Editing by Tim Cocks and Giles Elgood)