Sovereignty | Definition & Types

Sovereignty is defined as the supreme power in a state. It means complete freedom to govern and act without external interference. Sovereignty means the power a country have to act on its own without fear of interference from any other country. The word sovereignty was coined by French Philosophy Jean Bodin. According to Thomas Hobbes, sovereignty is the strongest power, the power that is able to compel obedience to itself, and because it is able to compel obedience, the duty of the subject is to obey it. In United States, the sovereignty is considered as the “body that has power to amend the constitution”.

Types of Sovereignty

Domestic or Internal sovereignty: This is the state power to regulate, define and carry out its affairs within her geographical area. This the power a state has within the country to govern her people. According to Bodin, domestic sovereignty means “the absolute authority and perpetual power of a state over its citizens and subject unrestrained by law”. This implies that the state has unlimited coercive authority over its citizens and subjects. Bodin’s notion of sovereignty gave no room for the right of the citizens to challenge their rulers; the citizens were mere object and subject of their leaders who were answerable only to God. Bodin definition gave legitimacy to the atrocities of 16 century monarch against their subject.

Domestic sovereignty is the power and authority of a state over all persons, things and territory within its reach. Also domestic sovereignty is internal authority of the state, distributed according to certain constitutional arrangement and exercised in fact by persons or group holding political power. In Nigeria’s fourth republic, sovereignty was distributed among the National Assembly, the President and the Federal Supreme Court.

External sovereignty: This refers to the power of a state to define, regulate and conduct its affairs with other state without reference to or dictations from any other state. It means state freedom from external forces and that state’s legal existence is recognized by other sovereign state or international organization, e.g. United Nations. External Sovereignty is sometimes used synonymously with independence, which is only a status symbol in international politics. It denotes equality of status. It means that all independent states are equal to each other in status since they are in theory not subject to any higher authority.

From such an angle, sovereignty has nothing to do with geographical size of a state, its military and economic capabilities. For example, the Gambia, with a population of less than half a million and the United States of America with a population of close to three hundred million people are considered to be equal, since they are both independent states that are in theory not bound by any higher constitutional arrangement outside their own territories. At the United Nations General Assembly, the United States and the Gambia have one equal vote each.

De-jure sovereignty: This refers to the supreme authority as recognized by law. A de-jure leader is one recognized by law; he may or may not even reside in that country. Some other person or group of person may be exercising the actual powers in that country.

De-facto sovereignty: This is the type of sovereignty in which the authority which exercises such powers may or may not have any legal recognition. In some cases the authority may be illegal, but despite the illegality, he exercises political power over the citizens of the state and its laws and orders are obeyed. The de-facto authority can compel obedience through use of sheer physical or naked force or through resort to moral and psychological persuasion.

Legal sovereignty: This is the supreme power to make laws and amend the constitution of the state.

Political sovereignty: This refers to the power of the electorate to elect who would govern them.

Popular sovereignty: This recognizes and upholds the theory of political sovereignty and maintain that people is the ultimate sovereign in a state. It is the popularity enjoyed by the authority.


There are at least four possible ways by which an entity can acquire its sovereignty. These are through formal granting of independence by a colonial power, through a successful revolution or liberation war, through a successful war of secession and when a territory which has not been claimed or colonized by any other state, succeeds in getting other countries in the international system to formally or informally recognize its independence.

Formal granting of independence by colonial powers: This mode of acquiring sovereignty was the most popular after the end of the Second World War. Most colonial territories in Africa attained their political independence in the early 1960 and became sovereign states. In most cases, formal independence was preceded by internal self government and constitutional conference that set out the modalities as well as the date for the formal transfer of power from colonial elites to indigenous power holders.

Independence through a revolution or liberation war: Some colonial people did embark upon revolutionary or liberation war as a means of acquiring sovereignty when it became obvious that the colonial authorities were not ready to grant them independence through peaceful means. In most of these territories, force was resorted to only as a last option, and after all other peaceful means had been exhausted.

In Africa, Algeria fought a war of independence against France for several years before they gained their freedom in 1962. States that attain independence through revolutionary wars do not always get recognition from all members of the international community immediately. This sometimes prevents them from enjoying all the trapping of independent statehood in the international system.

Through a successful war of secession: When a territory which was once part of an independent state decided to separate itself from such a state and succeed in doing so, after sometime, its sovereign status would be acknowledged by majority of the nation-state in the international community. For example, in 1971 East Pakistan broke away from the rest of Pakistan and called itself the Republic of Bangladesh.

After a brief war of secession and with the aid of Indian troops, the secessionists were able to defeat the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. With the defeat of mainland Pakistan, the international community recognized the new state off Bangladesh. Also, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991 after a prolonged Civil War.

Sovereignty through Recognition of Independent Status: The final mode of acquiring sovereignty that is now obsolete is when a territory, which is not claimed by any independent state or country is able to hold on to its independence until other sovereign states recognizes it as such. Example was Ethiopia, which held on to its territory throughout the scramble for and partition of Africa by European power in the 19th century.

By the time of the Italian invasion and occupation of Abyssinia now Ethiopia in 1935, its independence had already been recognized by the entire international community. This was evident in it full membership of the League of Nations to which Italy also belonged at the time. Though, not all entities that purport to be sovereign are so recognized in the international community. In 1965 Ian Smith declared Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe an Independent state, only one state recognized it as such, it was denied membership of not only UN and the OAU but all other international organizations at the time.


Voluntary lose of sovereignty: A state that is independent can choose to merge with another independent state. For instance, State A may choose to merge with State B, state A will automatically assume an inferior status in the international community. It will also lose the benefit of external sovereignty. It will cease to maintain a separate seat at the UN or the AU. It will not be able to have a separate national flag or currency.

It will also cease to conduct an independent foreign policy. It will surrender all the attributes of sovereignty to the new enlarged state B. The most successful merge between two sovereign states in Africa is between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which in 1964 formed the United Republic of Tanzania. Additionally, states have been reluctant to part with their sovereignty by merging with others, even in the face of severe crippling economic and political problems or even total collapse.

They tends to adopt the slogan “sovereignty in poverty” rather than prosperity within another state” like Liberia and Somalia which refused to merge with any other state and instead, preferred to be under the receivership of the United Nations and donor agencies. One reason for this situation is that most of the state in Africa and Asia are very jealous of their “hard-won“ sovereignty and independence for them to want to sacrifice them in the name of either economic or political survival.

Loss of sovereignty through forceful Annexation: An independent state can lose it sovereignty if it is forcibly incorporated into another state. 1940, the Ukraine, together with Baltic State of Estonia and Lithuania were annexed by the former soviet union during the Second World War and became part of the 16 states that formed the Union of Socialist Soviet Republic. Since 1945, there was only one abortive attempt at using force to incorporate an independent state into another state. It occurred 1990 when Iraq annexed Kuwait as its 19th province. However, the action provoked worldwide condemnation and outcry. The action was condemned by both the League of Nations and United Nations. Significantly less than a year later, America led the UN forces to push Iraq out of Kuwait in the famous Gulf war of January 1991.

Is Sovereignty still relevant in the contemporary International community?

Sovereignty is still relevant in contemporary international relations. After all, the international political system is basically a society of states with laid down rules and regulations as well as membership requirements. One of the principle requirements for full membership of the international political system is that applicants must be sovereign entities, and only states can fulfill such conditionality at the moment.  

It is to be noted in that regard that it is not just enough for an entity to have domestic or internal autonomy, which some non-state actor do have, it must also have external sovereignty before it can participate as a full member of the international community. From such a point of view, even the most powerful and influential non-state actors are not qualified for full membership of the international community.

They can only, if at all participate as observers. It is this immutable fact of contemporary international politics and the need to correct it that forced some leaders to fight for their sovereignty or to declare their territories independent, “Unilateral Declaration of Independence”. The former Rhodesian leader, Ian Smith in 1965 declared his Rhodesian an independent state with the hope that it would enable his country participates fully in the international community. The international community failed to recognize his phony independence and instead, imposed sanctions against his regime.

Consequently, Rhodesian remained a pariah state in the international community for many years until 1980 when it was formally became independent as Zimbabwe under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe. Finally, even the most vulnerable sovereign state today would prefer to remain independent because such a status confers upon it a lot of advantages which non sovereign actors do not enjoy. In spite of the proliferation of international institutions such as UN, ECOWAS, SADC, EU and AU, we must not also forget that they do not have autonomous lives other than those given to them by states.

One can indeed create a scenario whereby the members would one day decide to scrap these organizations for one reason or the other. When such a decision is taken, that would probably sign the death of such institution. For instance, in early 2001 African leaders decided to replace the organization of African Unity (OAU), which they created in 1963, with the African Union (AU), they became the end of Organization of African Unity as we used to know


In states that have political and popular sovereignty, sovereignty lays with the electorate e.g. Nigeria and America. In a dictatorship, it may be the dictator himself. In a military regime, it may be the supreme military council or the head of the military junta. In a parliamentary system of government the sovereign is with the parliament.


  • International organization and international law.
  • Influence of powerful countries and trans-national corporation
  • Economic aid from developed countries
  • Draconian law passed by the legislature which may be very difficult or impossible to obey.
  • Inability of state to protect lives and properties of the citizens.
  • The need for global peace and public opinion.

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