Separation of Powers and Nigerian Constitutional Democracy

Separation of Powers and Nigerian Constitutional Democracy


Ikenga Oraegbunam

culled from VANGUARD, January 19, 2005

THE term "separation of powers" is an influential concept in modern democracies. It denotes the practice of dividing the powers of a government among different branches thereof . Like the principle of "division of labour" in Adam Smith’s economics, the doctrine of separation of powers is geared towards efficiency but also more importantly, towards guarding against abuse of authority. Hence, it is a liberty-sensitive concept. A government of separated powers assigns different political and legal duties to the legislative, executive and judicial departments. This means that while the legislature has the power to make laws, the executive branch has the authority to administer and enforce the laws so made. The judicial division, on the other hand, tries cases brought before the courts and interprets the laws. It is this latter function that constitutes the court’s power of "judicial review".

The above system is usually described as a "horizontal" separation of powers. In a federal structure, there is yet another type called "vertical" separation of powers whereby governmental powers are shared between the central government and the fringe governments (i.e the state and the local governments). Our aim in this essay is to expose the meaning and origin of this separation doctrine. We shall also relate our findings to the Nigerian constitutional provisions and harp on the need thereof for the growth of our nascent democracy.


The doctrine of separation of powers developed over many centuries. The evolution of this concept can be traced to the British Parliament’s gradual assertion of power and resistance to the royal decrees during the 14th Century. The English scholar, James Harrington, was one of the first modern philosophers to analyze the doctrine. In his essay, "Commonwealth of Oceana" (1656),...