Concepts in Government – Power, Authority, Legitimacy, Sovereignty.


These are the major and most important concepts that government students need to identify themselves with.


Power is the capacity or ability to control the action of others. It seeks to compel people to obey decisions irrespective of their wishes. Non-compliance to those decisions is usually punished with sanctions. Furthermore, it is relational in the sense that it can only be exercised when two or more people formally or informally interact.


  1. Political Power: This type of power is wielded by the government or by political office holders. It enables a person to make effective and binding decisions that aids in the smooth running of the state affairs. It is the highest form of power because those that wields it can exert control over the holders of other types of power.
  2. Religious Power: It is the sacred power that is exercised by religious leaders such as the Imams and the Bishops over their congregation.
  3. Traditional Power: This type is based on the customs and traditions of a community. It is usually exercised by traditional rulers and chiefs.
  4. Economic Power: This type of power is exerted based on the economic resources of a person. It is exercised by the wealthy and economic buoyant persons of the society over the poor ones.
  5. Physical Power: This type of power is based on the physical strength and ability of a person. It is often referred to as naked power because it makes use of excessive force to secure compliance.


  1. The Constitution: Power is acquired through the Constitution because it assigns roles to persons in government.
  2. Religion: Occupation of religious positions and the possession of sacred or divine knowledge can confer power to an individual.
  3. Force: Power can be obtained through the use of force or arms. For instance, the military usually use coercion and force to overthrow a government.
  4. Inheritance: In royal families, power is usually inherited.
  5. Charisma: Power can be acquired through the possession of charismatic qualities and influence.
  6. Tradition: Traditional norms and value is usually a source of power that is conferred to some individuals; for instance, traditional rulers.
  7. Wealth: Wealth can be a source of power. This is common among individuals with economic influence who usually use their resources to acquire power.


Authority is the right to make binding decisions that controls people and secure their obedience. It is the right to command or direct others. Authority is usually exercised based on influence, persuasion and acceptance. It is a legitimate and legalized power because it is accepted by the people and needs not to rely on force to secure obedience and also because it is backed by the law.


According to Mark Weber, a German sociologist, there are three types of authority:

1). Legal Authority or Legal Rational Authority: This is the type of authority that is based on the law or derived from the constitution of the society. It is exerted by the government officials.
2). Charismatic Authority: This type of authority is based on or derived from the special or extraordinary qualities possessed by an individual which makes him capable of being a leader.
3). Traditional Authority: This type of authority stems from traditional norms, value and customs of a particular society.

Other types of authority are:

  • Political Authority: it is the authority possessed and exercised by elected and appointed political office holders to make and enforce policies.
  • Religious/Sacred Authority: it is a type of authority religious heads exercise over their congregation or followers.


  1. The constitution: Most political authorities are acquired from the constitution which is the highest source of law for a particular state.
  2. Election/Appointment: Authority can be obtained through election or by appointment into political positions.
  3. People: Authority can be acquired or derived from the total acceptance, compliance or support of the people.
  4. Religion: Authority can be conferred through the acquisition of a religious or spiritual position.
  5. Tradition: Authority can be derived from the traditional norms and custom of a particular society.
  6. Delegation/Delegated Authority: Authority can be conferred to some persons to carry out specific functions.


Legitimacy is defined as the recognition and the acceptance of a government by its citizen. It is the acceptance of the ruling government by the people in accordance with the law. A legitimate government is the government that has the support of the citizens and is backed by the constitution. The military government usually lacks legitimacy because of the forceful method used to gain control of the government.


  1. Good Governance: Government can acquire legitimacy by implementing good policies, promoting accountability and transparency in the running of their affairs.
  2. Social Services/Welfare: Provision of social or public services is a factor that affect the legitimacy of a government.
  3. Tradition and Ideology: The tradition of the people is an important factor that affect the legitimacy of a government. A government can sustain legitimacy by respecting the traditions of the people and upholding the ideology of the state.
  4. Popular Participation: Legitimacy can be sustained through popular participation of the people in government affairs.
  5. Public Opinion: Legitimacy can be acquired if the government respects the opinion of the people on important public or national matters.
  6. Foreign Policy: A government’s foreign policy is an important factor that determine its legitimacy before other governments.
  7. Free and Fair Elections: Legitimacy can be sustained by periodic, free and fair elections. Winning an election fairly is certainly also winning the support of the people.
  8. Respect for Human Right: Legitimacy can be obtained if the government respects the rights of its citizens.


Sovereignty is defined as the supreme power of a state to make laws and enforce policies within its territory without any form of external or foreign control. Jean Bodin (1530 – 1596) is often regarded as the father of sovereignty.


  • External Sovereignty: This simply means the independence of a state from foreign control. It is the power of a state to make laws and enforce policies without external control.
  • Internal Sovereignty: This simply means the power or the right of a state to make laws and enforce policies within its territories.
  • Legal Sovereignty: This simply refers to the power of a state to make laws and implement actions or decisions. It also refers to the legal institutions of the state that is empowered to make laws e.g. the legislature.
  • Political Sovereignty: This refers to the power or the right of the electorate to elect their representatives through election.
  • Defacto Sovereignty: This is the illegal and forceful acquisition of sovereignty by a leader or a body. An example is the military government.
  • Dejure Sovereignty: This refers to the lawful acquisition of sovereignty according to the law.
  • Popular Sovereignty: This refers to the right of the citizens to participate in the affairs of their state. It is the right of the people to participate in government such as law making and policy implementation. This ideology is associated with Jean Rousseau.

NOTE: Political sovereignty is vested with the electorate while popular sovereignty is vested with the people or citizens.


  • Permanence: The sovereignty of a state is permanent along with the state. This means that government may change but as long as the state exists, sovereignty cannot change.
  • Indivisibility: The sovereignty of a state is indivisible and final.
  • Inalienability: The sovereignty of a state cannot be transferred and it cannot be regained, if given away.
  • Absoluteness: This simply means that the state can give orders to its citizens and receive orders from none. It also means that it is free from foreign or external control.


  • The Constitution: The powers of sovereign leaders in democracy are limited to constitutional stipulations or provisions.
  • Coup d’etat: A military take over of power from a sovereign limits the powers of the sovereign.
  • International Laws: States which are parties to international laws and conventions are bound and are expected to abide by them.
  • Foreign Aids: Foreign aids by donor organizations or countries can influence the decisions of the receiving states.
  • Membership to International Organization: Belonging to international organizations such as the ECOWAS, UNO etc can affect the affairs of a state. These organizations can make decisions that can affect the policies of a member state.
  • Public Opinion: Public opinion is an important factor that determine and affect the policies of the government.


The terms above and their explaination are among the essential concepts that government students need to be conversant with. Therefore, it is important that students familiarize themselves with these terms so as to easily grasp and understand the topics that follow next.

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