What is Government? — Definition, Features, Functions & Organs

Concept of Government

The term government means different things to different people in the sense that it conveys different pictures depending on the context of use, the intention of the user, and the character of the socio-economic formation in which it is employed, or what it is supposed to describe.

However, from a scholarly or academic point of view, the use of the term could be said to be three-dimensional. These are;

  • Government as an academic field of study in the discipline of political science;
  • Government as an institution;
  • Government as a process.

1. Government as an Academic Field of Study

In the first dimension, the term government is used to describe an aspect of the academic field of study called political science. In this regard, it emphasizes the study of the principles governing the organization of the state and methods and processes of decision-making and implementation within and across states.

It also studies the behavior of individuals, groups, and organizations in society, especially as regards their relationship to state power, factors that generate conflicts within and between them, and how these conflicts are resolved. This specialized field also involves the generation of concepts, formulation of theories and methods for understanding. explaining and predicting political phenomena.

2. Government as an Institution of the State

The second dimension is the most common, in the sense that it falls within the common man's daily usage of the term to describe those apparatuses or institutions of the state responsible for governance. Hence, the second dimension refers to the government as an institution. This underscores the definition of government by most scholars as a body of person(s) and institution(s) that make and enforce in a given state or within any political community".

Thus, it is not uncommon to find people referring to state institutions like the police, the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, tax collectors, prison officials, etc. as government. All these represent the institutions or bodies of persons through which rules are made and enforced.

The use of the term in this sense can also be extended to the pre-colonial traditional apparatuses for making and enforcing rules within the political community. The fact that the different communities did not use the term 'government' (which is foreign) to describe these institutions or the act of governance does not remove the resemblance or similarity that exists between the act of governance today and that of traditional societies.

In other words, any body or machinery entrusted with the regulation and conduct of public affairs in the whole political community could be regarded as government. Thus the emirate system in the North, the Oba-in council in Yoruba Kingdoms, and Igbo gerontocracy (that is, government by adults, viz., elders, age grades, diviners, and women) were all types of government. 

However, there are distinctions between people's perceptions of government in traditional polities and government in the modern state system. For instance, in the traditional societies of the Igbo and Yoruba polities and, to a lesser degree, in the Northern Emirate, the people see themselves as part and parcel of the government. The government enjoys legitimacy because of the large degree of participation it affords the people in the processes of governing and the fact that the officials are seen in the first and only instance as agents of the people, or the 'gods' who work after the affairs of men. Many decisions are taken either by all and sundry (Ohaneze) as in Igbo communities or through progressive democracy, in which the issues are thrown to family units for debate before a generally acceptable decision is reached at the community assembly. Through this method, every adult in Igbo land had the opportunity to make an input in the governance of the society. 

Similarly, in Yoruba land, the Oba-in-council does not force any decision down the throat of the people. The councilors who were bonafide representatives of the people usually sought the popular opinion, which forms the nexus of the decisions announced in the name of the Oba. Where the Oba exhibits a dictatorial tendency and rules tyrannically, he is presented with the gift of the Calabash, which demands that he take his own life. This is tantamount to a vote of no confidence.

Though the Northern Emirate System does not exhibit the notion of a popular mandate or representative principle of democracy, the notion of the popular mandate is subsumed in the Islamic religion, which forms the guiding principles upon which the emirate system is built. The main is expected to govern in accordance with the sharia laws, which are an embodiment of the will of 'Allah' (God); thus, the legitimacy that the emirs enjoy is inherent in the people's trust and faith that his position is sanctioned by Allah and his authority inheres and complies with His will', The emir's legitimacy is therefore rooted in the sanctity of sharia laws and the people's faith in them. 

In the other parts of the North, where this is not the case, the emir's authority is always queried. The point I have been trying to make is that the major distinction between the governments of pre-colonial societies in Africa and the governments of post-colonial Africa is the 'we' and 'they' notions that characterize them, respectively. 

While the population of pre-colonial Africa sees the government as their own and takes part in it, the population of post-colonial Africa sees government as 'they', an abstract concept and entity represented by some coercive apparatuses that relate to man only as a predatory force. This perception is not unconnected with their colonial experiences, in which they were forcefully uprooted from their traditional method of political organization and forced to align with a new governmental system. 

This new system, which was not only complex and foreign, was imposed, intimidatory, oppressive, exploitative, and alienatory. The people only see it as a foreign apparatus designed to subjugate the indigenous population. Service rendered to it could at best be described as duty without loyalty, because it neither sought their opinion, nor represented their interests. It was no wonder that the imagery it conveys was only that of coercion—the police, the prison officials, the tax collectors, the magistrate, the court clerks, etc.—hence people's efforts to extricate themselves from this oppressive machinery that was only interested in crushing them. 

This new form of 'public force' (the state) experienced by the colonized during colonial rule lent credence to the perspective of government as "that agency of the ruling class which is charged with the responsibility of exercising state power on behalf of the whole class''.

This view is in consonance with the Marxist's view of government as a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie (Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto 1948). It also presents the image of government as a partial rather than a neutral umpire, as propagated by liberal thinkers.

3. Government as a Process or the art of Governing

The third dimension sees government as a process. In this process, governments represent the complex networking of systems for purposes of rule making, rule implementation and application, and rule adjudication. These processes constitute the three basic functions of government, what the notable American political scientist refers to as the input functions of the political system. (Varma 1975). These functions are carried out by the different structures or institutions of government.

What is Government?

Government can be defined as the machinery through which the will of the state is formulated, expressed, and implemented.

From this definition, we can come to the conclusion that:

"A government is a legitimate and accountable body that is empowered by the consent of the people to formulate, express, and implement the will of the state. It is composed of institutions and individuals who are tasked with carrying out the policies and laws that have been democratically established."

Major Functions of Government

Having defined government and the structures with which it functions, let us examine in greater detail the reason for instituting government. In other words, why the government? Government must have occurred to many of us because of the myriad of functions that it performs and which are vital for the day-to-day upkeep and survival of the political system. These functions can be viewed from two diverse perspectives, viz., the liberal and the radical perspectives. 

Representing the liberal school of thought, Olisa et al. note that government functions can be categorized into three broad areas:

  • Essential functions
  • Service functions and
  • Commercial activities

1. Essential Functions

These consist of those functions that are absolutely essential for the continued existence of state political systems. Examples include the maintenance of peace order and stability throughout the state; the protection of the state against foreign invasion and domestic violence; the protection of the lives and property of individuals within the territory of the state; and the conduct of foreign relations with other states and international organizations.

2. Service Functions

This refers to those activities that a government may undertake for the promotion of individual welfare and the overall development of the state system. These services include road construction and maintenance; the provision of pipe-borne water; health services, electricity, education, public parks, recreation centers, etc.

3. Commercial Activities

This refers to those areas of activity that may be carried out for profit by government agencies or private corporations, such as railways, telephone services, radio stations, shipping, etc. These services are commercial because they rake in some revenue for the government.

Nnoli, representing the radical perspective, notes that the functions of government revolved around the establishment, sustenance, and preservation of class rule. He argues that the major function of government is the exercise of state power on behalf of the ruling class. In this regard, the government ensures that the hegemony or dominance of the ruling class in society is not only protected but indeed consolidated and perpetuated. 

This preservation of hegemony is concretized through the following mechanisms:

  • The maintenance of law and order in society is achieved through the activities of coercive apparatuses like the police, the judiciary, and the prison services, whose main tasks are arrest, sentence, and the effect of punishment on culprits, respectively.
  • Adapting the activities of the ruling class to changing conditions of class struggle, for example, granting independence to colonies without losing control of the colonies through the perpetuation of neo-colonialism.
  • The regulation of the activities of society through the laws, statutes, decrees, and bye-laws of the authorized body entrusted with the function of doing so. Through these regulatory mechanisms, the government controls all aspects of a person's life, hence the ubiquitous character of government. As such, regulation covers economic, social, political, cultural, and even religious relations.
  • The creation of a stable pattern of expectations in all spheres of society. This is reflected in the establishment of a well-regulated pattern of power transfer amongst the various factions of the ruling class so as to eliminate anarchy, ensure stability, and stimulate the confidence of the people in the ability of the ruling class to manage the systems. Thus, the emphasis placed on subsystems and principles like the electoral system, party system, rule of law, and separation of powers is geared towards the creation of homeostatic in the system.
  • The government also ensures pattern maintenance through tension management. This is achieved through the resolution of all conflicts in society so that they do not degenerate so as to threaten the hegemony of the ruling class.
  • Associated with this function is the symbolic function of generating loyalty to the regime and government through the manipulation of emotive symbols. What systems theorists refer to as the symbolic capability of a political system. This function is most visible in the singing of national anthems and national pledges, the salutation of the national flag, and the pomp and pageantry often associated with governmental ceremonies and celebrations. It is also manifest in the adoption of national language policies, national day celebrations, awards of national honor, etc. The essence is to generate loyalty to the state and country, which will have some positive spillover effects on the government and the state as a whole. In Nigeria and in most of Africa, it has not been possible for the government to create such vital national symbols that can act as an integrative force. This deficiency has been attributed to the factionalization of the ruling class along ethnic and regional lines.
  • The government performs the function of socialization through its control of the educational system and the media of communication. In today's secular states, the government not only determines the educational objectives and policies but is also the major financier of education. To this end, it builds schools, colleges, and tertiary institutions and determines the contents of the curriculum used in these educational establishments, which most of the time are tailored to suit the broad outlines of policies pursued by the government, for example, colonial government emphasized European history and geography, English literature, and such other subjects that tend to orient Africans toward the Western value system. On the contrary, most colonial states in Africa emphasize African history, geography, literature and poetry, and science-based disciplines to aid technical development. Where the educational system is properly formulated, it could act as a veritable instrument of national integration. That was the wisdom behind the establishment of unity schools in Nigeria, although its admission policy of late tends to defeat the reason for their creation, as most of them are today largely populated by pupils from the state in which the school is sited.

The government can also perform its socialization function through control of the media of communication, viz., television, radio, stations, newspapers, and magazines. Through this mechanism, the government can influence the activities and emotions of its populace through propaganda. Today, many people and groups are involved in the media industry, which thus acts as a countervailing force in the propaganda efforts of the government. 

In addition, the emergence of the satellite network, which helped to compress the world into a global village by making it possible for people to watch and be part of events in other parts of the world, has also largely curtailed the grip governments have over their populace through the media of communication.

Basic Components of Government

The conceptualization of government as the decision-making and enforcing agency in a state that controls a monopoly of legitimate use of force highlights three crucial components of government:

  • Government exists to make and enforce decisions. All human societies need to make a collective decision as to the ends (wants) of society and the best means of achieving them. The government is the highest and most formal level at which such decisions are taken or implemented. For example, the decision on what type of economic strategy Nigeria should adopt to wipe off armed robbery, reduce poverty, and eliminate corruption.
  • Government is the ultimate source of coercion in social affairs. If collective decisions must be implemented or enforced, there must be some form of collective agency with a monopoly over the use of force. This agency is the government. While the use of force or the threat of the use of force is not always advisable, it may be unavoidable in instances where groups or individuals resist or violate collective decisions.
  • The government's conduct is normally seen as legitimate. Legitimacy refers to an acceptance by the people that it is right for the government to seek and receive the obedience of the citizens. In other words, the government is popularly accepted and authorized to govern. Compared with other institutions in society, the conduct of governmental institutions is usually seen as legitimate.

Modes of Establishing Government

Basically, there are two recognized ways of establishing a government, namely,

  1. Democratic method of forming government, and
  2. Non-democratic methods of forming government.

In other words, other than democracies, there are a variety of ways in which government systems are organized.

1. Democratic Method

The democratic method manifests when elections are carried out democratically. It involves the use of democratic elections to influence the composition, conduct, and policies of government. Democracy is a system of government run by the whole population, or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Democratic elections are carried out on the basis of democratic principles, including:

  • Citizen/popular participation
  • Political Equality
  • Political Tolerance
  • Accountability and transparency
  • Political Competition
  • Free and fair elections
  • Separation of powers (control of abuse of power)
  • Respect for human rights
  • Rule of Law
  • Periodic elections
  • Neutrality of state institutions
  • Popular sovereignty
  • Secret balloting

The following procedures are followed in establishing democratic governments:

  • Delimitation of constituency areas;
  • Registration of voters;
  • Registration of political parties and nomination of candidates;
  • Balloting, secret or open;
  • Counting of votes and declaration of results;
  • Going to litigation by those who feel they are being cheated in the election. Litigations are referred to as legal ways of settling electoral disputes among competing political parties and/or contestants.
  • Swearing in of winners;
  • Formation of a cabinet according to constitutional provisions.

2. Non-Democratic Methods

Essentially, there are three modes under this method of forming and carrying out the business of government. These are:

(I) Imperialistic Mode:

This is the process by which imperial powers (impostors) establish quasi-governments in their countries of choice. This is particularly seen in colonial settings. For example, all the governments established in Nigeria and other colonized nations prior to independence were undemocratically established. The colonial governors were unilaterally appointed by the colonial power, while some powerless councils were formed to help them in the administration of the colony.

(II) Military coups or coups d'état

Military governments are those where the armed forces rule the country. This form of government is established through the barrel of a gun. It is usually the fastest and shortest route to power, yet it is also the most dangerous and destructive to the psyche of the people.

Military coups are usually stimulated by several factors, such as poor leadership, societal violence, corruption, and military ambition, among others. Any military coup is illegal because it suspends the constitution, which established the armed forces.

A government of this type is usually formed by an individual or group of coup plotters. The current Thai government was established through the 2014 Thai coup d'état. Recent cases include Niger Republic, 2023; Burkina Faso, 2023; Gabon, 2023; Central African Republic, 2013-2014; Egypt, 2011-2012; Mali, 2012; and Guinea-Bissau, 2012.

(III) Election Rigging

This is the process by which government is established through the falsification and manipulation of leadership selection processes. The main purpose of elections is to enable people to freely choose those who will serve as their leaders. However, for one reason or another, incumbent governments (governments in power) are interested in who takes over power from them; as a result, the favored parties are 'helped' to take over the mantle of political power and form a new government.

Typical examples include the 1965 western region election of the NNDP and the 1983 national election of the NPN in Nigeria.

Organization of Modern Government

Regardless of whether the system is centralized or decentralized and irrespective of ideological, philosophical, or political persuasion, the government, as the agency for formulating and realizing the end or will of the state, is divided into three (3) branches or organs. These three branches are the totality of legislative, executive, and judicial bodies in most political systems.

For example, like many other governments in the world, the United States and Nigerian governments are divided into three separate branches—legislative, judicial, and executive—to prevent abuses of power. The typical three main organs, branches, or departments of government are shown in the diagram below.

The Executive Branch

The Executive is the organ of government empowered within the constitutional framework to implement or carry out the policies, laws, and decisions of the government. As in the United States and Nigeria, most countries rely on large executive bureaucracies to carry out laws and enforce rules.

Broadly speaking, the executive organ embraces the aggregate or totality of all the functionaries and agencies that are concerned with the execution of the will of the state, as that will has been formulated and expressed in terms of law.

Thus, the term embraces not only the overall head of the government—the President, as he is called in the United States and Nigeria—but also the ministers and the whole mass of subordinate executives and administrative functionaries who constitute what, in Great Britain, the United States, Nigeria, and other democratic countries, is known as the Civil Service. The President or Head of Government and the cabinet ministers are regarded as temporary executives, and the core of civil service members are classified as permanent executives.

The executive is a very important arm of government that other arms of government cannot do without. This is because the country always looks up to it for the execution of policies, orders, rules, decrees, and laws and to maintain peace and good government.

Apart from the legislature and judiciary, all other institutions and bodies in public service are under the control of the executive. It is extremely rare, if not impossible, to have a government without the executive branch. Even in situations where other branches are less visible, the executive is always visible. This is because of the pivotal role it plays in the administration of the state.

Even in military regimes where the legislature (in the real sense of it) is missing, the executive still exists, and the leader of the junta is the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Types of Executive

Meanwhile, there are two main forms of executive. These are the cabinet or parliamentary system and the presidential system. The parliamentary system exists in a state where the two main functions of a head of state and a head of government are shared between the president or monarch (the nominal executive) and the prime minister (the real executive).

Great Britain is a good example of a country practicing a parliamentary (cabinet) system. Regarding the presidential system, "it tends to separate the chief executive from the legislature, and the chief executive, if he chooses, may in turn isolate himself from the citizens."

It is important to note that the executive's functions cover the general administration of the state, including law enforcement. The responsibilities of the executive also include the conduct of external relations and defense, legislation, control of the 'purse', and the power to grant reprieve or pardon to the offenders, among others.

The Legislative Branch

The Legislature is the organ of government charged with the responsibility of making laws as well as policy formulation. In short, the legislative activities of assemblies are important in representative democracies. This may be the reason why national legislatures are called parliaments in Britain (and in most countries).

Congress in the United States of America, Diets in Japan, the National Assembly in Nigeria, and assemblies in other countries exist in nearly all contemporary political systems, although they are particularly associated with democracies.

Of the several organs and processes through which the will of the state is expressed and carried out, the legislature unquestionably occupies the paramount place. In all, it exercises a large amount of control over the sources of supply and its power to create public offices and establish new services. Thus, the legislature is, in a sense, the regulator of administration.

Garner (cited in Johari 2012)

The importance of the legislature is also evident in its ability or power to change or amend legislation as well as to abolish laws considered not useful for the 'common good' of society. Despite the importance of this governmental institution, it remains the arm of government that is most vulnerable and undermined by political instability.

The formal rules and informal conventions in the conduct of legislative business often look similar from country to country, but with little difference. The fact is that virtually all the existing legislatures in the world usually adopt one of the two basic models: the Westminster model (the British model) or the American model.

Types of Legislature

There are two types of legislatures. The first one is known as a one-chamber or unicameral legislature, which is a representative form of government with a single legislative chamber. In the unicameral legislature, there is only one chamber. It has most often been established in countries with a centralized or unitary structure. Countries with unicameral systems include Uganda, Costa Rica, Portugal, and Sweden.

The second type is known as a bicameral legislature. This is the type of legislature where there are two chambers. This form of legislature can be found in several democracies, like Nigeria (the House of Representatives and the Senate), Great Britain (the House of Lords and the House of Commons), and the United States (the Upper House and the Lower House).

In a bicameral legislature, legislative business takes place in the two chambers that often operate independently of each other. The constitution defines the power and boundaries of each of the two chambers as regards the dispensing of their political functions. By and large, the two chambers often work in harmony to carry out their functions.

Generally, the second (lower) chambers are weaker and less powerful than the upper chambers. Moreover, it is important to point out that although a bicameral legislature is likely to be more expensive and may lead to undue delay in the passage of bills, it allows for checks and balances, thoroughness, and informed input in policy and lawmaking.

A unicameral legislature, on the other hand, is quick, has the capacity to meet emergencies, and is less expensive, but it can lead to the making of hasty legislation and is susceptible to manipulation. Thus, the second chamber serves as a check.

Besides the law-making and deliberative responsibilities of the legislature, there are other functions of this organ of government that cover administrative, financial, and judicial spheres as well. Okunade (2001) opined that:

"The legislature legitimizes policies and turns political decisions into law. It also acts as the people's representatives and as a conveyor of people's views to the executive." He added that the legislature provides avenues for influencing the executive and provides a forum for national debate."

There are some unique functions assigned to the Upper House alone in a bicameral system. For instance, in Nigeria and the United States, the functions of screening and confirmation of the appointment of government officials like ambassadors and ministers Attorney General/Chief Judge and Advisers are carried out by the Upper Chamber.

The Judiciary

The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and administers the law. It provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. Under the doctrine of the separation of powers, the judiciary generally does not make law (in a plenary fashion, which is the responsibility of the legislature) or enforce law (which is the responsibility of the executive), but rather interprets law and applies it to the facts of each case.

This branch of government is often tasked with ensuring equal justice under the law. It usually consists of a court of final appeal (called the "Supreme Court"), together with lower courts. Most people consider the judicial branch to be the least harmful of all the organs of government and regard it as the arbiter of the last hope of the common man.

In many jurisdictions, the judicial branch has the power to change laws through the process of judicial review. Courts with judicial review power may annul the laws and rules of the state when they find them incompatible with a higher norm, such as primary legislation, the provisions of the constitution, or international law. Many times, courts are seen only as arbitrators in disputes between individuals or private parties. The judiciary, however, performs some key roles in political systems.

Notwithstanding the way the judiciary is composed, this branch of government is supposed to be independent and impartial. The independence of the judiciary is vital to the administration of the state. The independence of the judiciary is hinged on the freedom of the administration of justice, wherein court judges are independent enough to perform their professional functions.

There are certain safeguards that some countries put in place to guarantee the freedom of the judiciary from undue interference. These include guaranteed tenure, the appointment of competent judges, respect for the rule of law, and the charging of judgessalaries on the consolidated fund, among others.

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