Sovereignty means the supreme power and authority of the state over the citizens. It is the power of the state (exercised by a body of persons known as sovereign) to make laws and enforce them with all the means of coercion it cares to employ, without any interference by other states. The idea of sovereignty originated from Jean Bodin (1530 – 1590), a French political thinker and philosopher.


Principal Characteristics of Sovereignty

The following are the characteristics of sovereignty:

  1. Indivisibility: Sovereignty is supreme, final and with coercive power of the state over the people living within the state. Sovereignty cannot be divided, though government can delegate powers to certain agencies.
  2. Absoluteness: The powers of a sovereign state cannot be restricted. There is no limitation to its legal powers within its area and it receives orders from none.
  3. Permanence: As long as the state exists, sovereignty continues without interruption, it is a permanent attribute of the state which does not change.
  4. Independence of foreign control: A sovereign state is independent of foreign control.
  5. Comprehensiveness: The powers exercised by the government are wide and encompassing. These powers are binding on all.


Types of Sovereignty

The following are the different types of sovereignty:

  1. Legal sovereignty: The body that makes laws and enforces same in the state is the legal sovereign. For example, Parliament is the legal sovereign in Britain. The parliament also has the amending power of the constitution.
  2. Political or popular sovereignty: It refers to that body which is supreme in a state, the will which is ultimately obeyed by the citizens of the state. The electorate constitutes the political sovereign. The will of the electorate ultimately prevails because legal sovereignty, in the making of law, is bound to act according to their will.
  3. Defacto sovereignty: It refers to the body or group of people who use force to make citizens obey their will, after overthrowing the legitimate sovereign of the state through invasion or revolution. e.g. the military in government.
  4. De jure sovereignty: This type of sovereign rule is based on law and its application as opposed to physical exercise or use of force.
  5. Internal sovereignty: This refers to supreme power the state has to make and enforce laws within its area of authority.
  6. External sovereignty: The power of the state to exist, conduct its domestic affairs without external interference. The state also has the power to decide on how to relate with other nations of the world on equal basis.


Location of Sovereignty in a State

Sovereignty could be located in any of the following institutions or groups in a state.

  1. Location in a federal state: The constitution of a federal state is supreme and it recognises different authorities and with different powers and functions to exercise. For example, the central government and other surbordinate units, like state and local governments. Therefore, sovereignty in a federal state is shared since powers are constitutionally shared too.
  2. Location in a unitary state: Since most of the constitutions of a unitary state recognise only the central level of authority and give it all the powers, sovereignty therefore resides with the central government. For example in Britain, the central government has supreme authority over other institutions created by it.
  3. The electorate: The electorate have the ultimate power, through the election, to decide who will be their representatives in government. Therefore, political sovereignty resides with the electorate.
  4. In a monarch: Britain is a good example where the location of sovereignty can be traced to the Queen in Parliament.
  5. Location in a military regime: Military regimes are highly centralised. Nigeria is a good example where sovereignty resides in the central decision-making body of every military regime. For example, the Provisional Ruling Council which exercised both executive and legislative functions.


Limitations to the Sovereignty of a State

The following are some of the internal and external limitations to the sovereignty of a state.


  1. The Constitution: Constitution of most states are supreme. It defines the powers exercised by the various levels of government. It therefore limits the powers of the government.
  2. The Electorate: They possess ultimate power in a state. Therefore, any government should be responsible to the people whose collective affairs it directs and controls.
  3. Public Opinion: In democracies, governments are open and accommodating. They take into consideration, the opinion of the people when formulating policies. This is limitation to the exercise of their powers.
  4. The Military: The military through forceful removal of democratic government is a limitation to the sovereignty of the state. The tradition mostly exhibited by the military is by suspending the constitution of the state after taking over of power.
  5. Customs and Traditions: Customs and tradition of the people are mostly considered by the state before or when making policies and laws.
  6. Religion and Culture: Religion and Culture play a very important role in the political affairs of a nation. When making of policies and laws in the state, religion and culture of the people are mostly considered by the government.
  7. Delegated legislation: In most modern democracies, delegated legislation is recognized. Power are therefore, delegated to other bodies to exercise, thereby working against the sovereignty of the Parliament. This is a limitation to the sovereignty of the state.
  8. Resources: Absence or lack of human and material resources can put on hold the exercise of the state authority.
  9. Activities of Pressure Groups: Some categories of individuals and pressure groups in a state need to be contacted before laws are made and executed. The failure to observe this can make such pressure groups to influence the public to act otherwise.
  10. Type of Government in Power: The exercise of sovereignty is best achieved in a unitary state than the federal or confederal systems of government.



  1. International Organizations: States which belong to international organizations e.g. the U.N.O. and regional or subregional groupings e.g. A.U. and ECOWAS respectively must be ready to abide by any collective decisions taken by the organizations.
  2. International laws and Conventions: This is concerned with relationship among nations of the world. States that disobey international laws and conventions may face some sanctions. These sanctions are usually imposed by the Security Council, an organ of the United Nation Organizations.
  3. Inter-dependence of State: Most less developed countries of the world depend on the developed ones for aids of different dimensions. The donor country can influence both the domestic and external policies of the recipient country. This constitutes a limitation.
  4. Dominance of powerful States: The big powers e.g. U.S.A; Russia, China, Britain and France, determine the course of events globally. This can negatively affect the sovereignty of most states.
  5. Military Agreement or pacts: Two or more countries can agree to co-operate militarily. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) WARSAW PACT and ECOMOG, Cameroon and France also have military agreement.
  6. External Aids: External sovereignty of states that are less developed or poor has been undermined by the economic, technical and military assistance of donor states.
  7. International Financial Institutions: The World Bank and I.M.F. for instance, have succeeded in dictating to many countries on how to run their economies especially when such countries are asking for loan. In fact, many countries today are puppets of I.M.F.
  8. Diplomatic Immunity: Diplomats representing their countries in other countries of the world, have diplomatic immunity. Some of their actions can undermine the sovereignty of their host states.
  9. External Trade: This could be in form of exportation and importation of goods. Treaties governing this trade must be respected by each country.
  10. Geographical Location: For example, land locked countries, nearness to other states, can limit the sovereignty of a state.

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