Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, a deceptively gentle giant in front of an audience, turned to a Togolese proverb to answer critics' charges about the personality cult he has built around himself and his autocratic rule in this small West African country.

"He who wants to kill the dog, first accuses the dog of rage," said the paternalist leader of Togo in an interview. "Togo is prosperous and viable and people, our critics, are envious of us," he added with a smile.

The Army officer who led independent Africa's first military coup, Eyadema, 45, has placed domestic tranquility and economic development above individual political and civil liberties in his effort to make Togo the Switzerland of West Africa.

And in West Africa, where military governments have met with increasing domestic and inter-African opposition, Eyadema's rule remains peculiarly popular and the conservative, pro-Western autocrat is accepted as an influential statesman among the region's political leaders.

Smaller than West Virginia, this densely populated, corridor-shaped country was given little chance of survival at independence from France 20 years ago. Today Togo, a country of 2.5 million people is in better economic shape than many of its neighbors.

Only two military coups both led by Eyadema, mar Togo's relatively long, if not democratic, period of stability. Togo's constancy coupled with an easily convertible currency tied to the French franc, lucrative phosphate exports and a large volume of trade with its poorer neighbors have given the country an admirable record of economic growth.

Ill-advised government spending on expensive prestige projects such as luxury hotels, extensive overseas borrowing leading to a $1 billion debt and a mid-1970s plunge in phosphate prices have forced Togo to rein in on its ambitious development program but the economy remains healthy.

Togo has 21 different tribes and ethnic groups. Eyadema's supporters argue that its stability is attributable to his leadership through the one legal party, the Togolese People's Party.

In January 1963, at age 28, Eyadema led the first military coup in independent black Africa. It ended in the assassination of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Eyadema then gave government control to Olympio's brother-in-law and political rival, Nicolas Grunitzky. In 1967 Eyedema overthrew Grunitzky and kept power for himself.

During his 13-year rule, at least one assassination attempt has been made against Eyadema; he has walked away unsratched from a suspicious airplane crash that killed four fellow passengers; and his government was the target of an aborted mercenary-planned attack in 1977. British intelligence learned of the plans, apparently put together by Togolese exiles, passed the information on to the American ambassador here who, in turn, alerted Eyadema.

Gilchrist Olympio, the Paris-based son of the assassinated president, has been condemned to death in absentia by Eyadema's government for allegedly being the mastermind behind the plot.

Eyadema's brushes with death are all celebrated in government publications, political rallies sponsored by his party and in seminars held by the Eyadema Foundation, founded and funded by the West German Hanns Seidel Foundation. The Seidel Foundation is a branch of the conservative Christian Socialist Union led by Franz Josef Strauss.

Privately, several diplomatic sources said, Eyadema has expressed strong misgivings about Soviet and Cuban roles in Africa.

"He has said, 'Give them an inch and they'll take your arm,'" said one well-informed source.

Eyadema did not respond to questions about Soviet-Cuban actions in Africa, telling a reporter he would receive written answers by mail at a later date.He confined his answers, after having all the questions read to him, to criticism of his government and his extensive role as a mediator in West and Central African disputes, a function he relishes.

"the critics are a very small minority," he said. "A minority that doesn't really exist inside Togo. If people are not satisfied with you, you will not have the peace that we have."

Eyadema claimed that when he helped overthrow Olympio's government, 2,500 political prisoners were released from jail. In 1967, when he finally took power from the second civilian government, he said he released 500 political prisoners.

"Today," he continued, "Togo has only six political prisoners," men who were convicted in connection with the mercenary plot. Independent observers agreed.

"Those who criticize me are the children of Olympio," Eyadema said. "If I was leading such an oppressive regime, then why do they go to mercenaries" to overthrow the government "instead of going to the people?"

Eyadema's opponents, said a Western source, come from Togo's minority of educated elites, but he remains popular among the country's peasants, almost 80 percent of the population.

"If there were a free election Eyadema would get a plurality or a majority," said another source. "If he did not run, people would vote along tribal lines."

Although public criticism of Eyadema is not allowed -- a visitor was warned to stop using his name in a restaurant conversation as it might be misconstrued -- his firm control has been loosened somewhat in recent years as he has sought international respectability.

During the past decade, Eyadema has played a pivotal role in reconciling bitter inter-African disputes, notably the estrangement between Nigeria and the Ivory Coast following the latter's recognition of the secessionist state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war.

In April, Eyadema crossed the Chair River under fire in a dugout canoe from Cameroon into the Chadian capital of Ndjamena in an effort to mediate an end to the brutal civil war that is still raging there. His effort was unsuccessful but it was a measure of how other Africans see him that he was given safe conduct through the war zones to speak to leaders on both sides. w

"A mediator must be seen as neutral," said Eyadema, "and other heads of state accept me because I follow a policy of noninterference in their affairs."