Government » Introduction to Government » Basic Concepts of Government

Legitimacy and Sovereignty


Legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. Whereas “authority” denotes a specific position in an established government, the term “legitimacy” denotes a system of government—wherein “government” denotes “sphere of influence”. An authority viewed as legitimate often has the right and justification to exercise power.

Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite. In Chinese political philosophy, since the historical period of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the political legitimacy of a ruler and government was derived from the Mandate of Heaven, and unjust rulers who lost said mandate therefore lost the right to rule the people.

Legitimacy is derived from the Latin word “legitimus” meaning lawful or according to law, so simply, legitimacy means a situation of being lawful, it can also be defined as the general acceptance of the political system as the most appropriate and being in line with the laws of the land. Legitimacy means acceptance of a political system or an administration because it is in compliance with the laid down rules and regulations.

Factors That Determine or Affect Legitimacy

  1. Popular participation: For a political system to be accorded legitimacy, the various interest groups such as political parties, pressure groups, etc, must be allowed to take part. Such participation of the various interest groups will give the system the required acceptance by the populace.
  2. Popular support: A government is said to be legitimate if it receives the popular support of the citizens. In a democratic system, the party that receives the greatest support in an election forms the legitimate government.
  3. Foreign diplomacy: The foreign policies adopted by a government of a country determine the legitimacy that the other nations will accord to such government.
  4. Leadership: A leader that performs creditably in office make people to accept his regime as a legitimate one.
  5. Common National symbols and heroes: Existence of common national symbols like National passport, National anthem, National flag, Pledge and coat of arms, etc. make people to accept a government as a legitimate one and also the acceptance of common heroes and heroines determine legitimacy.
  6. Good government: People accord legitimacy to a government which meets up with their expectations of good governance. That is the reason why some military administrations seek to legitimize their governments by trying to implement good policies.
  7. Peaceful means of setting disputes: The existence of means of peaceful settlement of disputes without constant resort to violence or application of coercion also affects legitimacy.
  8. Historical experience: Long historical contact and colonial experiences make people accept their government as legitimate especially in Africa and Latin America countries.


Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity or political entity.

A sovereign state hence has absolute power to make and enforce laws within its territory without any external influence. The modern theory of sovereignty was first introduced by a French political philosopher Jean Bodin in 1530 to 1596 which has now been converted to political theory by political scientists, Hobbies, Grotius, Locke, Bentham, Rousseau, John Austin and many more.

Sovereignty is defined as the absolute power of the state to exercise supreme legal authority over its own affairs within its territory without any form of external control.

Characteristics Of Sovereignty

  1. Permanence: A permanent sovereignty exists so long as the state exists. The Government and its officials may change but sovereignty does not change.
  2. Indivisibility: The power of sovereignty which are supreme, absolute, final and coercive cannot be divided or shared.
  3. Inalienability: The power of Sovereignty cannot be given away or transferred because if a sovereign power is transferred, it cannot be regained.
  4. Absoluteness: The power of a sovereign state has no restriction, the modern sovereign state issues orders which are binding on all citizens and association within the territory and receive orders from none. This characteristic is also known as unlimitedness.
  5. Absence of foreign control: The power of a sovereign state is supreme within its territorial jurisdiction without any foreign control.
  6. Comprehensiveness: The power of sovereignty is wide in scope and all-embracing and as such, is binding on all persons or groups within the territorial jurisdiction.

Types Of Sovereignty

  1. Political sovereignty: This type of sovereignty is the supreme power vested in the people to form a government of their choice.
    The people exercise this power through the ballot box by voting for those they want to delegate the power to. Political sovereignty is also known as popular sovereignty.
  2. Legal sovereignty: This is the type of power used to make and enforce laws in a given state. The body that makes and enforces these laws of the state is known as the legal sovereign.
  3. External sovereignty: This is the supreme power of the state to conduct affairs without foreign interference. It also empowers a state to conduct its international relations on equality and unanimity basis.
  4. Internal sovereignty: This is the supreme power of the state to make and enforce laws within its territorial area of jurisdiction.
  5. De facto sovereignty: This is the type of sovereignty that is acquired through the use of coercion. De facto sovereignty involves a body of persons that displaces a legitimate sovereign through invasion or revolution and hence uses force to ensure compliance with its will. E.g Armed Forces Ruling Council (A.F.R.C) of Nigeria.
  6. De jure sovereignty: This is the type of sovereignty that is acquired in accordance with the laws of the land as opposed to the use of force.

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