Power (Political Power) – Definition, Types & Sources

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What is Power in Government Studies? – Definition, Types & Methods of Acquiring Political Power

Power is widely abused word. It is, therefore, common to hear the use of phrases such as student power, black power, spiritual power, power of the purse, bottom power, legislative power, judicial power, executive power and presidential power. What is however, common to these various species of power is the desire to control and dominate others for one reason or the other.

Power In Government


What is Power?

In simple terms, power means ability to rule. It is the ability to change or affect the behaviour or actions of another in the way one likes. For example, power is the ability of Mr A to compel Mr B to do something, which Mr B would ordinarily not want to do. Thus, in defining power, the word ‘ability’ is very important.

A person who wishes to exercise power must have the ability or capacity to compel obedience to his instruction. A teacher who asks his students to do an assignment in Mathematics; the police man who stands at the road junction directing traffic; the judge who sentences an offender to a jail term and the Head of State who grants amnesty to some people are all exercising power in one form or another.

It is actually the threat of sanction, or the fear of punishment rather than the sanction or punishment itself that provokes obedience. For example, a child would likely carry out the parents instruction because he does not know what the consequence of disobedience would be. But, if he already knows that he will only be caned for any act of disobedience, he may flagrantly disobey the parent and say “After all, they will only beat me“.

Indeed, a frequent use of penalties or punishment may weaken power. That is precisely why in the administration of justice, many countries have introduced the suspended sentence system because it is generally observed that sending criminals to prison for every minor offence committed may turn them into hardened criminals.

Our concern, in this topic, is not really with power in its generalized form, but with political power or the use of power in the political arena.

Meaning and Definition of Political Power

Power and political power are sometimes used interchangeably but they do not exactly mean the same thing.

Political Power is the capacity of state officials to determine the behaviour of other individuals or groups and the political system by the use of threat or some form of sanction.

The state is the only institution of society that can use force to ensure compliance with rules of behaviour. It can exercise this power because the state controls the police, the armed forces, the court system, prisons, and other instruments of coercion.

Features of Power In Government

The major features and characteristics of powers are as follows.

  • Insatiable Desire by Man for Power
    People generally desire and seek power. The struggle for power by man is endless. They usually seek power as an end in itself or as a means to an end (e.g. power as a means to acquire wealth).
    In other words of Thomas Hobbes, a famous English writer who lived in the 17th century, “there is a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceased only and death.” this is more so in a country like Nigeria where politicians usually seek power for self aggrandizement and primitive accumulation of wealth.
  • Corrupting Tendencies of Power
    Power tends to excite and indicate its user. Speaking on the corrupting tendencies of power, Lord Acton warned, as far back as 1887 that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He further cautioned that: “Among all the causes which degrade and demoralize man, power is the most constant and most active.”
  • Changing Effect of Power
    Power has a way of changing the individual while holding public office. This partly accounts for the behaviour of many politicians who remember the electorate in their constituencies only when elections are approaching. For example, a leading politician who campaigned vigorously for election in April 2011 Nigeria election for a top political job suddenly realised immediately after his inauguration that four years was too short to achieve anything in office. But it is only a lazy workman that quarrels with his tools.
  • Uneven Distribution of Power
    Power is not evenly distributed in the political system and this fact may not even be clear to political leaders. Consequently, some people may misunderstand the power distribution while some others may even underestimate the power of the opponents. For instance, the Babangida regime might not have cancelled the June 12, 1993 Presidential elections widely believed to have been won by chief M.K.O Abiola if it had a more accurate assessment of the power of the opposition forces. In the same vain, President Goodluck Ebere Jonathan would not have increased the price of a litre of petrol from 65 naira to 140 naira if his administration had probably guaged public opinion on the issue.
  • Power as a Reflection of Human Relationships
    Power deals with relationship among human beings and not between human beings and inanimate objects. That is, power exists where there are two or more people. Thus, it is possible for an employer to have power over his employee but it is inappropriate to say that a man has power over a table.
  • Multi-dimensional Nature of Power
    The exercise of power usually involves both positive and negative sanctions. A sanction is positive when the political leader get obedience or compliance from the people by promising his supporters good things like contracts, ministerial and both appointments and national honour. It is negative when the leader threatens to deny those rewards to people who oppose him. In fact, those who opposed the political leader may suffer all kinds of penalties including harassment, imprisonment or even assassination.
  • Centrality of Power to Government and Politics
    Power is Central to the study of government and politics. In fact, trokosi power is about influencing and controlling others. It is therefore not a surprise that Harold Lasswell, a foremost political scientist defines politics as “the study of the shaping and sharing of power”.

Types of Political Power

There are three types of political power, namely, legislative power, executive power and judicial power.

  • Legislative Power
    Legislative power refers to the ability to make laws. The major function of the legislature is to make laws. Ironically, it is not every legislative house that can make laws. For example, the Nigeria Council that was established by Lord Lugard in 1914 to make laws for the new country was like a mere debating society which had no real power to make laws. Questions may even be raised about the kind of laws a legislature makes. Without any doubt, most of the laws made by legislative houses in Nigeria have little or nothing to do with the welfare of the people e.g. they are seldom concerned with making laws on social security for the poor, and the unemployed in Nigeria.
  • Executive Power
    Executive power is the power to implement laws and take decisions. It is, however, possible to be in government and not be in power especially when powerful external forces dictate the policy direction of the government.
  • Judicial Power
    The power to settle disputes and punish offenders is known as judicial power. The importance of the judiciary is underlined by its power to review the acts of the other branches of government.

Methods of Acquiring Political Power

Political power may be acquired in the following ways:

  • By Contesting Election
    An individual may acquire political power by contesting and winning elections. This is perhaps the most legitimate method of acquiring power and democratic setting.
  • By Acquiring Political Resources
    The acquisition of political resources is another means of acquiring political power. Political resources include things like wealth, education, popularity or honour. In Liberia, Mr George Opong Weah, the former African, European and World Footballer of the Year (1996) contested the Liberian presidential election in October 2005 largely because of the fame he had acquired playing football at the highest level. But his critics often claimed that he was unqualified for the plum job because he has no college degree. He has since then obtained an American college degree.
    Nevertheless, it is one thing to have the resources and it is another thing to translate it into power or influence. In spite of Mr. Weah fame, he lost to Mrs. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in the elections. Sirleaf, a former executive of the World Bank was apparently the preferred choice of the international community. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
  • Possession of Political Skills
    A person who has abundant political skills such as political intelligence and persuasive oratory skills can usually require political power. For example, Chief Samuel Ládòkè Akíntọ́lá, the late Premier of Western Nigeria was so dexterous in the use of words that people at his campaign rallies would always laughed and laughed and would want to come back again.
  • By Maximizing Prestige Earned in Other Prpfessions
    Prestige gained in non-political activities such as the army, the church, sports and business may be translated into political power. In France, General Charles de Gaulle, one of the best-known French army officers during the Second World War was the founder of the 5th French Republic in 1958. In the 2003 Presidential elections in Nigeria, for example, the three leading candidates (Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari and Ojukwu) were retired military officers. The Nigeria Senate has been headed for two consecutive terms (i.e. 2007 – 2011 and 2011 – 2015) a retired Brigadier General David Mark (David Alechenu Bonaventure Mark, GCON).
    The picture is not likely to change too quickly in the foreseeable future. Since only few people have access to political resources, it follows therefore that access to political power is limited in every political system. The minority with power is sometimes called The ruling class, the ruling elite, political elite political establishment. They are found everywhere in government, business, church, School and Social Club. The major political decisions are taken by this small group despite the popular belief that power belongs to the people.

Exercise of Political Power by the Citizens

The citizen can exercise power in the following ways:

  • By exercising his right to vote and be voted for.
  • Every joining or forming a political party or pressure group.
  • By criticizing what is bad or inefficient.
  • By contesting injustice meted out to him in the lower Court.

The ruling class in many developing countries usually take the people and good government for granted largely because of the people that abdicated their political power.

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