By Mick Krever, CNN
Without “strong leadership,” Rwanda would have been unable to modernize and change at the pace it has in the 20 years since its horrific genocide, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told CNN’s Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane Amanpour, on Monday.
The country on Monday marked 20 years since nearly 800,000 people were murdered in about 100 days.
“I think it is an almost unique set of circumstances,” Blair said. “Frankly, without strong leadership, the country couldn’t have come the distance it has in the last twenty years.”
Rwanda has seen incredible modernization in the past two decades, Blair said, lifting “a million people” out of poverty, and getting huge reductions in malaria and maternal and child mortality, among other achievements.
While many credit President Paul Kagame with those successes, some also accuse the leader of stifling Rwanda’s opposition and having authoritarian tendencies.
In an interview with Amanpour last year, Kagame said she should not “worry” about whether he will step down at the end of his constitutionally limited term of office in 2017.
Pleitgen questioned Blair – who as founder of the Africa Governance Initiative serves as an informal adviser to Kagame – about the president’s record.
“You know the threat when people are in power too long, especially in Africa,” Pleitgen said. “You know that they can become authoritarian, that there is that danger and that that can lead to instability.”
“Yes; that's absolutely true,” Blair said. “He is someone I know well. I don't think he's that type of person or leader.”
“And by the way, I discuss [these issues] very openly with President Kagame and…there's not a problem having that discussion with him.”
Blair was not yet prime minister during the genocide, but said that it nonetheless affected him.
“The trouble is we always say never again and then we have to repeat the phrase,” he said. “I think Rwanda did have a huge collective impact on the West.”
“It certainly did for me as a leader when I sent British troops into Sierra Leone.”
“What France is trying to do in Mali – and I actually think what the U.N. is trying to do in the Central African Republic – is also in part borne out of our experience of history.”
The basic lesson of Rwanda, he said, is that if you “see a catastrophe coming and you can prevent it, it should be an obligation” of the international community to intervene.
Pleitgen questioned Blair on whether the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq – which Blair enthusiastically supported – have not turned many in the West off to intervention.
Despite the limited Western interventions on Mali and Central African Republic, there has been little appetite to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
“Supposing in Afghanistan we hadn't got rid of the Taliban,” Blair said. “Would we really be in a better position in Afghanistan today?”
“Likewise in Iraq. If we really left Saddam [Hussein] there, would we be in a better position, when we see what’s happening in Syria? I think it's certainly arguable the Arab Spring would have come to Iraq as well…and we would be having, in my view, an absolutely catastrophic situation in the Middle East today.”
“Where you've got people who are prepared by acts of terrorism, supported by strong outside forces to kill without mercy and die themselves without regret, you're going to have a big problem.”
“They create misery and in the end you know, at some point at the latest time, we have to go in and try and clean the situation up.”
“Inaction,” he said,” is as big a decision as action.”