This nation's military rulers and democracy activists do not agree about much.

But in recent weeks, government officials and democracy supporters have attacked with equal passion a most unlikely target: retired Gen. Colin Powell, accused of dubbing Nigerians "scammers" who "just tend not to be honest."

The comments, reported in the New Yorker magazine last month, have brought a scathing rebuke from Nigerians, who condemned the potential presidential candidate's comments as irresponsible, untrue and decidedly unpresidential.

"You should never make sweeping generalizations like that to describe a people," said Femi Falana, a prominent democracy activist. "Those comments are very unbecoming of a man of his stature."

Brig. Gen. Fred Chijuka, a spokesman for Nigeria's Defense Headquarters, has said that Powell's remarks were "unfortunate and unfair," reportedly adding: "Powell certainly knows the potential, population and strategic position of Nigeria and that as giants of Africa we do not deserve such comments from him."

Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation with more than 100 million people, has certainly had its image bruised over the past two years.

Its military regime -- led by Gen. Sani Abacha -- has come under increasing international pressure to resign or face economic sanctions. The United States stopped aid in 1993, and earlier this year a group of powerful African Americans launched a campaign to force Abacha's government to resign.

At the same time, Nigeria has become known as a primary drug trafficking center in Africa, and Nigerians have gained a reputation for perpetrating fraudulent schemes, often aimed at unwary foreigners. Such an image has made it tough for Nigerians to secure visas to some countries.

In his reported comments, Powell said, in part, that Nigerians "just tend not to be honest. Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvelous scammers. I mean, it is in their national culture."

Powell has not disavowed the comments or apologized for making them.

Powell's critics charge that he has ignored the professional success of millions of Nigerian immigrants in Europe and the United States. "These people are professors, writers, doctors, contributing to the development of their societies," Falana said.

Other Nigerians have accused Powell, who is black, of betraying his race. The Congress of Nigerians Abroad and the Organization of Nigerian Professionals called the statements of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "the irresponsible tirade of a man who has abandoned his African heritage."

Stephen Olugbemi, a political science professor at the University of Lagos, said Powell's comments were especially surprising because of Nigeria's historical closeness to Jamaica. Powell's parents emigrated from that West Indian country to the United States.

Thousands of Jamaicans have flocked to Nigeria since the West African country became independent of Great Britain 35 years ago, Olugbemi said. In Lagos, there used to be a community called "Jamaican Quarters."

"He was very wrong in characterizing Nigerians the way he did," Olugbemi said. "Nigerians are basically very honest, hard-working people."

It is not the first time that a prominent African American has drawn the ire of Nigerians. In the past, both Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young have been attacked for being too conciliatory toward Nigeria's military regimes.

Some Nigerians suggested that perhaps Powell meant his comments for the military rulers, who have led Nigeria for all but 10 years since independence in 1960.

"Military regimes have created a culture of corruption that has made its way into every aspect of society," said Gani Fawehinmi, a Lagos lawyer and politician. "To that extent, Powell is absolutely right."

Falana, noting that 1 of every 5 Africans is a Nigerian, said Powell's comments come close to condemning all of sub-Saharan Africa.

He added: "It is like saying that because a lot of crime is committed by black Americans, that must mean that all black Americans are criminals."