Separation of Powers

The doctrine of separation of powers is a mechanism used in the distribution of powers among arms of government to secure the independence of each arm in the performance of its duties and the liberty of individuals. The principle was propagated by Baron Charles de Montesquieu to prevent the concentration of power in one man or groups of individuals. According to him the essence of separation of power is to prevent tyranny and abuse of power.

One branch of government must not have the whole functions of another on it or obtain control over the other branch. Power must be separated among the three arms or institutions of government.

In the other words, the executive, legislative and judicial arm of government should not be concentrated in the same hands or groups of individuals. Experience has shown that every man is interested in power and a man entrusted with power is likely to abuse it and carry out his authority to infinity.

To prevent abuse of power, it is necessary that functions of government are divided into compartments or arms so that such arms should be responsible for particular functions.

It is the division of organs or arms of government into separate but co-ordinate units that is referred to as separation of powers. This is so because the constitutional powers are separated.

Today, the arms of government are divided into executive, legislative and judiciary. Each of these arms performs distinct but overlapping functions.

However, the spirit behind separation of power is to prevent arbitrary use of power and abuse of it. Therefore, the separation of power makes it possible for one organ to check the other.

The functions of governmental arms are overreaching and each arm requires the expertise of the other.  The most important issue in the separation of power is to ensure that the goals or policies of government are achieved.

In African countries where the art of governance has not yet been properly learnt, the executive tends to dominate over the legislature and judiciary and influence them for its selfish interests.

The legislative organs in some countries only use weapon of impeachment as a threat, to get much allocation from the executives and not to achieve the goal of proper governance. The judiciary in some cases gives unpopular judgement in favour of the executives to secure appointment and financial benefits.

The doctrine of separation of powers is predicated on the proposition that the organs of government can be classified into the executives, legislature and judiciary and that no one of these should exercise the function of the other.


Checks and balances are mechanisms used to check the abuse of power or concentration of power in one arm. One arm of government checks the other and thus balances the power of each. It is because the concentration of power in one arm of government could lead to abuse of it, that certain checks are used to reduce the concentration of power on one arm and balance the power and use of it.

The separation of power among arm of government is aimed at checking the abuse of power and balancing the power among the arms. The essence of checks and balances is that each power checks the other power, thus balancing the power so that none would be more powerful than the others.

The executions of the functions of the executive arm of government are usually and always checked by the legislature and the judiciary. The executive arm of government also checks the execution of the functions of the legislature and the judiciary. The judiciary also does same to the executive and the legislative.

The legislature in the exercise of its functions can impeach the president, or call for the removal of corrupt minister. The legislative can repeal law and legislate on new ones. The legislature confirms the appointment of judges while the executive can remove a judge found guilty of misconduct after the recommendation of National Judicial Council.

The judiciary interprets the laws made by the legislature and applies same in deciding conflict between the executive and the legislature. The judiciary checks the excessive use of power by the legislature and the executives in order to restrain the excessive use of power and to safeguard citizen’s liberty.

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