Sovereignty – Definition, Types, Features & Development

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What is Sovereignty? – Definition, Development and Types of Sovereignty

Definition of Sovereignty
Sovereignty – Definition of Sovereignty

A fundamental characteristic of the modern state is sovereignty which simply means the supremacy of the power and will of the state over its citizens.

The supremacy of the state drives from its Monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Nevertheless, there must be an individual or a group of individuals in the state who have the final authority to formulate the law or the will of the State, and to enforce the law so formulated.

That highest authority in the state is known as the sovereign power.

Definition of Sovereignty

The word ‘sovereignty’ itself is derived from the Latin term ‘superamus’ which means supremacy. As such, Sovereignty refers to the supreme power or authority in a state. It is the power of the state to make laws, and enforce these laws without the state being subject to any foreign control.

Given this simple definition of sovereignty, every present day state may be considered as sovereign, but this is not really true in practice.

The one-sided distribution of power resources in international relations and the advent of globalisation have the negative effect of reducing the sovereignty of Nations, especially the weaker ones.

Development of Sovereignty

The historical development of the concept of sovereignty may be considered from two different dimensions namely, the traditional and modern perspectives.

  • Traditional View of Sovereignty

The word ‘sovereignty’ was first used by Jean Bodin, the French philosopher and blues supporter of the king of France in his book ‘Republique’ published in 1576. In the book, Jean Bodin argued that sovereignty was an essential element of the state and that the king, the legitimate holder of power, had absolute supremacy which was not shared with any other person. In other words, the King had absolute Power subject only to the laws of God, of nature and of the Nation.

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Similarly, Thomas Hobbes, a friend of King Charles I of England, contended in his ‘Leviathan’ that the exercise of Power by the monarch was not limited by any power. The central argument of Hobbes, like Jean Bodin before him, was that sovereignty belonged to the King. In fact, they assigned no role to the people in controlling the King.

But in radical departure from this position, John Jacquees Rousseau, another French philosopher developed the doctrine of the ‘social contract’ in which he declared that the relationship between the King and his subjects should be that the people who was the king who are the ruler administers justice. Put differently, the king’s power are not absolute but were subject to control by the people.

John Locke, an English writer, in his book, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) emphasised that the supreme power in the state was to be found in the people. Locke, who was greatly influenced by the English Revolution of 1688 went a step further by assigning sovereignty to a supreme legislative body which comprised representatives of the people. Thus, it was John Locke who established the principle that the sovereignty should be controlled, to some extent, by the people.

The views of Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, J.J. Rousseau and John Locke represent the traditional views of sovereignty. This group described sovereignty as the existence in a state of an authority which was unrestrained buy any law. In this sense, sovereignty was considered to be absolute, inherited, perpetual and indivisible.

  • Modern View of Sovereignty

The modern view of sovereignty was developed by Professor A.V. Dicey. It is apposite to observe that Dicey’s postulation on sovereignty is less popular than his conceptualization of the rule of law.

Contrary to the view of the traditionalists, Dicey and other writers of his ilk held the view that sovereignty was divisible. According to this argument;

(a) If the components parts of a country (e.g. the regions or States) are sovereign, the result of the union is mere confederation.

(b) If the central government is sovereign, the resort is a unitary state.

(c) A federation exists where the component parts are partly sovereign and party non-sovereign.

Types of Sovereignty

There are five main types of sovereignty, namely, legal sovereignty, political sovereignty, de-facto sovereignty, de-jure sovereignty external sovereignty.

1. Legal Sovereignty

Legal sovereignty refers to the existence of legal institutions, which are established for the administration of the State. These legal institutions include the constitution, include the constitution, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

In a parliamentary system of government, for instance, the legislature is the legal sovereign in the sense that the parliament is supreme as it has power to make and unmake laws and whatever law it makes is binding and must be obeyed.

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It is, however, difficult to locate the legal sovereign in a presidential system of government as in Nigeria. Although the legislature may make laws but the Judiciary, Supreme Court can declare a law made by the legislature as unconstitutional if it is not in conformity with the constitution. The judiciary, however cannot be the legal sovereign because the legislature may amend the constitution to make it constitutional that which has been initially declared as unconstitutional.

The states of the federation too cannot be sovereign for their power may be limited by the constitution and amendments to it. The legal sovereign in a country, like Nigeria, then consists of those authority that have power to amend the constitution and this will include the National Assembly and the States’ Houses of Assembly, and probably the president giving his capacity to exercise a veto power.

2. Political Sovereignty

The political sovereignty in a state is vested in the people or more specifically, the electorate. Although the people, on their own, cannot make law, but it is the body to which final appeal is made when issues arise.

In a democracy, the power of the electorate is manifested in the following:

(a) The responsibility to vote into office members of the legislature, who in turn control the executive.

(b) The right of the individual to get himself elected.

(c) The right of the people to criticize the government and comment on its activities.

The legitimacy of any government is derived primarily from popular consent. The laws of the state are obeyed largely because of the consent of the people.  If this concept is withdrawn, there will be chaos and disorder. There is therefore a latent dependence of the legal sovereign on the will of the people.

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Democracy can only be granted in a political system if both legal and political sovereignty coexist. Thus, without political sovereignty, legal sovereignty cannot work and where legal sovereignty works to exclude enterly the political sovereignty, the system cannot be said to be democratic.

3. De Facto Sovereignty

A person or group of people that overthrow the legitimate government in the state to military coup, revolution or an invasion and can compel obedience to his will is known as the de-facto sovereign. If the person who is able to keep power over a considerable period of time, it becomes a legitimate or de-jure government.

4. De Jure Sovereignty

De Jure sovereignty is one which is based on law rather than force alone. Thus, a de facto sovereign of a state may, with time, metamorphose into the de jure sovereign.

5. External Sovereignty

External sovereignty refers to the freedom of a state from foreign control. External sovereignty is a myth in this era globalisation and neocolonialism.

Characteristics of Sovereignty

The major features of sovereignty include absoluteness, comprehensiveness, permanence and indivisibility.

  • Absoluteness

The powers of the sovereign are largely unlimited. That is, in theory, the legal of sovereign can do and undo. This may not really be the case in practice. The various international conventions and bilateral agreements between countries have severely limited the power of national governments to take unilateral decisions.

  • Comprehensiveness

The sovereign has power over every person or group in the state except diplomats who are excluded because they enjoy diplomatic immunity.

  • Permanence

As long as the state exists, sovereignty continues without interruption. the government may change and the political leaders may be removed but the state sovereignty remains permanent.

  • Indivisibility

As emphasized by the traditionalists, sovereignty cannot be divided. The sovereignty may delegate some of its power to the component units but the supreme power cannot be shared.

The motion is; One State, One Sovereignty.

Limitations of Sovereignty

The topic can be read (Here – Limitations of Sovereignty )

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