The term ‘sovereignty’ is from French and means ‘above’ or ‘one who is superior to other’. The term was originally used to identify the king and in this context, the king represents the supreme and final authority of a state. The king by exercising this enormous power of state sovereignty is known as the “sovereign”. Thus, any country/state that is able to conduct its own affairs independent of other states is a sovereign state and as such is equal to other states in international law.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  define sovereignty 
  2.  explain the development of the concept 
  3. describe its major characteristics and types, as well as its limitations. 


3.1 Development of the Concept of Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty has developed since the days of Aristotle who contends that the Senate of the Athenian state is sovereign and that its laws should be the final sovereign. However, in the sixteenth century, the French political philosopher Jean Bodin gave it a new meaning.
In his book titled “Six Books of a Commonwealth” Bodin (1576) argued that “sovereignty” refers to the source of the state’s authority regardless of its form of government. Sovereignty may be vested in a king or in some elite group or even in the corporate citizenry of the society over time. Whatever the form of sovereignty, Bodin explained, it is distinguished by three attributes, it is absolute, perpetual and indivisible.
Bodin’s primary concern was to strengthen the authority of the French monarch which some argued was constrained to honour certain long-established traditions and principles enshrined in the common law and in France’s feudal institutions. But if the king was limited by the common law or by tradition, Bodin observed that the king was not sovereign; as the sovereign power could not be divided among various institutions, or formally limited by past experience, it followed that the king could do whatever the king pleases. Sovereignty was absolute, perpetual, and indivisible. However, Bodin admitted that Laws of God and the Laws of Nature (that is laws perceived through reasons) and the Salic Laws (that is the law of succession) were the only limitations on sovereignty. Otherwise, the sovereign can do no wrong. Finally, Bodin argued that the principal mark of the sovereign was the right to impose laws on all subjects, their consent notwithstanding. To govern well, Bodin believed that the sovereign must be above the law. Thus, law itself was nothing more than the command of the sovereign. Other notable political scientists who contributed to the development of the concept of sovereignty include Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, John Austin, Dicey and Field.

Hugo Grotius placed his emphasis on external sovereignty, that is, the freedom or independence of the state from foreign control. Thomas Hobbes also contributed to the development of the concept in his book “Leviathan” published in 1651. Hobbes insisted that sovereign might be one man or assembly but the power of the sovereign remained the same in whomever it reside. Sovereign power is absolute and cannot be shared, even though the sovereign may allow someone to exercise power on his behalf. Hobbes argued that because the fundamental law

of nature was self-preservation, human beings were inherently disorderly, selfish and were generally in conflict with one another. Thus, only a strong and powerful ruler (sovereign) can put these tendencies of the “war of all against all” in check. Hobbes, a supporter of Charles I, during the Puritanic Revolution in England strongly declared that sovereignty was absolute and resided in the ruler (the king). His work is the first statement of complete sovereignty in the history of political thought.

John Locke and Rouseau redefined sovereignty in term of people rather than one single ruler. They contended that the ultimate power in any state rested with the people. Locke in his “Essays on Civil Government” wrote that the supreme power in the state lay with the people. According to him, “the power of the state is limited, not absolute because it derives power from the people and because it holds power in trust for the people.” Rousseau went further; he insisted that whenever the ruler violated or betrayed the “trust of the people”, the people had the right not to obey the sovereign and to even overthrow his government.

Let us now examine some of the modern views on sovereignty. Professor Dicey distinguishes between legal and political sovereignty. According to him, the legal sovereignty is that person or body of persons having the power to make law. The political sovereign on the other hand is that body of persons in the state (the electorate) whose will ultimately prevails because legal sovereignty in the making of law is bound to act according to their will. By contrast, Field felt there was no need to make a distinction between political and legal sovereignty. Sovereignty is a legal term used in terms of law only according to Field. Finally, Bentham thinks of sovereignty in terms of the unlimited power of the Legislature, and he argued that this power is only morally limited by the possibility of justifiable resistance to its authority by the individual or by a group/groups.
So varied are the views expressed on the concept of sovereignty by political scientists and jurists that it may take a long time in discussing them. For the purpose of our study, however, we shall consider the characteristics and types of sovereignty. Sovereignty can be used in three senses. Firstly, sovereignty used in the legal sense means that there is only one authority in the state that can exercise it. And in this instance, sovereignty is unlimited, limitable, and indivisible. Secondly, sovereignty used in the coercive term implies that it is the coercive authority of the state.

Since law has to be obeyed by citizens whether or not they like it, there should be a coercive authority to enforce the laws of the land. Thirdly, sovereignty is used to express the presence of a strong influence in the society. Sovereignty is the distinctive mark of the state, distinguishing it alike from individuals and associations in the community.


Who are the major contributors to the development of sovereignty as a concept?

3.2 Principal Characteristics of Sovereignty

The main characteristics of sovereignty as developed by the political theorists discussed above are:
(i) Indivisibility;
(ii) Absoluteness or unlimitedness,
(iii) Permanence,
(iv) Independence of foreign control, and
(v) Comprehensiveness.

  1.  Indivisibility – This implies that sovereignty is the supreme, final, absolute, coercive power of the state over the people living within the state. The possession of sovereign power by the state enables it to make laws and enforce them with all the means of coercion it can employ. The actions of the government of the state are not subject to the control of any other associations within the state. Sovereignty cannot be divided though the government can delegate powers to certain agencies.
  2.  Absoluteness – This shows that the powers of a sovereign state cannot be restricted. The modern state is essentially a sovereign state which issues orders to all citizens and associations within its area and receives orders from none. There is no limitation to its legal powers. The absoluteness of 
  3.  Permanence – This underscores the fact that as long as the state exists, sovereignty continues without interruption. Government may change and the state itself may be reorganized but sovereignty is a permanent attribute of the state which does not change. There is an exception, however, sovereignty as a permanent attribute of the state may change in case of war and conquest. In such a situation, a more powerful state may wage a successful war against a weak state and thereafter annex it. What happened then is that the annexed state becomes “sovereign void” in the sense that the state that annexed it now exercises the lost sovereignty of the conquered state. 
  4.  Independence from foreign control – A sovereign state does not only exercise supreme power within the area of its jurisdiction, it is also independent of foreign control or external authority. 
  5.  Comprehensiveness – This denotes that the power of the sovereign is wide, complete and extensive in scope. The power of the sovereign is all-embracing and is binding on all persons or groups within the territorial boundary of the sovereign, however large the land area may be. It is this attribute that brought all British colonial territories under the authority of the British Monarch (i.e. the Queen of England) before their attainment of independence in the 1960s. 

3.3 Types of Sovereignty

The various types of sovereignty is a subject of controversy among writers. Some have written on legal and political sovereignty, others on de factor, de jure and external/internal sovereignty. From our discussion of sovereignty above, it is possible to deduce and make a possible distinction between legal, political, de facto, de jure, internal and external sovereignty.

i) Legal Sovereignty

The body that makes laws and enforces them in a state is the legal sovereign. For example, Parliament in Britain is the legal sovereign. Dicey has defined legal sovereignty as “a merely legal conception and means simply the power of law-making, unrestricted by any legal limit.”
According to John Austin, the authority that gives commands which are habitually obeyed and which are not binding on itself is the sovereign power in a state. Thus, the will of the sovereign is law; and it is a command obliging the subjects to do or refrain from doing certain things. Failure to obey such a command will result in sanctions been imposed on the subject(s).

ii) Political/Popular Sovereignty

While parliament is the legal sovereign, political sovereign refers to that body which is supreme in a state, the will of which is ultimately obeyed by the citizens of the state. In this sense, the electorates, constitutes the political sovereign. By voting for legislators and the executives, the electorate delegates to these arms of government the decision-making powers. The electorate remains the ultimate power in a state by subjecting those who exercise the state legislative sovereignty to periodical renewal of their mandate through elections.

iii) De facto Sovereignty

This term is used to refer to the body or group of people who use force to make citizens obey their command after having overthrown the legitimate sovereign of the state through invasion, revolution, or coup d’etat. De facto sovereignty is sovereignty as of a fact. That sovereignty that resided in the Abacha’s Military Government was a fact for a while. This situation arose because the military was able to displace the legitimate sovereign through a palace coup. Because the Abacha’s regime succeeded in keeping power from November, 1993 – 1998, it is the “de facto sovereign’ and it became recognized as a legitimate sovereign because it was able to keep power for several years.

iv) De jure Sovereignty

Here the sovereign rule is based on law and legitimacy as opposed to physical force. De jure sovereignty is explained in terms of the loyalty which the people give the government’s claim to sovereignty and legal sovereignty emanates from this loyalty.

v) Internal Sovereignty

This refers to a state’s supreme power to make and enforce whatever laws it sees fit for its internal affairs. With regard to internal sovereignty, wide variations exist among states as the location and scope of sovereign power. Sovereignty may be vested in a Monarch, a Parliament or National Assembly.

vi) External Sovereignty

The idea of external sovereignty presupposes independence of a sovereign state from foreign control by any other state. The term is also used to include powers of the state to conduct international relations on “equality” and “unanimity” basis. Nowadays, there are some ways in which state sovereignty can be limited through the influence and authority of some world organizations such as the United Nations Organisation (UNO) and African Union (AU) of which most states are members. It should be noted here that because the world is becoming more interdependence, there is very little difference between internal and external sovereignty. This will be considered later when the subject of International Relations/World Order is discussed.

Even the then Soviet Union, with undeniable super-power status, found itself dependent upon wheat from the United States in the early 1970’s. And despite considerable economic muscle, Japan was compelled to modify her Middle East policy to ensure adequate supplies of petroleum during the Arab oil embargo of the same period. Fear of exhausting or destroying the wealth of the oceans has led to unprecedented cooperation in limiting the freedom of nations to pollute and over-use marine resources. In addition, some countries have willingly surrendered the right to produce nuclear weaponry in exchange for technical assistance in peaceful nuclear development. Finally, on the one hand, the still fragile character of international economic relations, and on the other hand, the growth of multinational corporations whose interests span the globe have worked together to avert massive dislocation like that of the 1930’s which resulted in the devastating World War II in which over 28 million lives were lost.


Discuss the various types and characteristics of sovereignty.

3.5 Limitations to the Sovereignty of the State

As far as the relationship between the state and the individual is concerned, there is little or no limit to the sovereignty of the state. However, Jean Bodin argued that the sovereign is subjected to limitations imposed by the “salic laws” (the law of succession), the law of nature and the law of God, which laws the sovereign must obey. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes believed that the sovereign can be disobeyed when he can no longer protect the lives of his subjects. Finally, John Locke believed that public interest should be paramount in the mind of the ruler. Where such rulers substitute personal interest for public interest, the rulers should be removed or recalled. What these various forms of limitations mean is that sovereignty is not absolute as earlier discussed.
Constitutional Supremacy, in many modern states, especially in federal states, constitutes another limitation on state sovereignty. In federal states, for example, in the United States, the legal sovereign is difficult to locate. It is not Congress, for laws may be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. It is not the Supreme Court, because amendments to the constitution may make constitutional what the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional. It is not the fifty states, for their powers may be limited by amendments to the constitution. The legal sovereign then consists of the combinations of authorities that have power to amend the constitution – this includes the Judiciary, the States and Congress.

The influence of powerful nations on small nations is yet another limitation on state sovereignty. For example, the United States of America recently succeeded in ordering the Haitian Military rulers, which has been in power for two years, to step aside for the civilian popularly elected Aristide. What this mean is that sovereignty is only a legal concept and no state can claim total sovereignty if it is a small and a weak state.
Another limitation is membership of International Organisations. Most states are members of the United Nations Organisations which is one of the most influential world bodies today. No state wants to be censured
by the UNO for failing to heed its wishes or advice. Most states respect the majority of opinions of the organization and in fact world opinion is now a real factor in international politics. Every state likes to project its own image to the world in the best way possible. Most states wishes to be in cordial terms with one another so that wars and conflicts may be prevented.

Some countries are signatories to defence pacts or agreements, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the countries concerned owe it a duty to fulfil the terms of the pacts religiously and follows common policies as dictated by the terms of the pacts.

In the economic field, most countries are members of economic organizations such as the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), etc., in which they have to submit to certain control over trade and tariff policies in order to be members of such bodies. On the political and social planes, there are associations which membership involved submission to their rules and regulations. It involves some sacrifice of sovereignty on the part of the countries which are members of such associations or world bodies. In some ways, therefore, the national sovereignty is still subject to external limitations. Thus, there cannot be absolute, utterly unqualified state power and hence no absolute sovereignty in domestic and external affairs.


What are the limitations to the sovereignty of the state?


In this unit, we have explained the theory of sovereignty in political science. We have examined various aspects of the theory – the origins and development of the concept, the principal characteristics of sovereignty, the types and limitations to the sovereignty of the state. We also explained the various reasons put forward by opponents of sovereignty as a useful concept in political science.


  1. What is sovereignty? 
  2. Discuss the origins and development of sovereignty as a concept. 
  3. What are the principal characteristics of sovereignty? 
  4. Discuss the views of the opponents of the theory of sovereignty. 


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