While the terms state, sovereign state, nation, nation-state, and country are often used interchangeably, there are differences. Simply put:
A state is a territory with its own institutions and populations.
A sovereign state is a state with its own institutions and populations that also has the capacity to make treaties and agreements with other sovereign states.
A nation is a large group of people that originate from a specific territory and are connected by history, culture, or another commonality.
A nation-state is a nation that is also a sovereign state.
The word “state” is used to refer to geographic sections of sovereign states which have their own governments but which are subject to the larger federal government. The 50 states in the USA for example are non-sovereign states. Sometimes countries use different words to describe this such as prefecture or province.
Territories of non-sovereign states are not sovereign states in their own right. They derive their sovereignty from the federal constitution that joins them and other non-sovereign states together. There are many entities that have most qualities of sovereign states but are officially considered to be not sovereign. Many have their own histories, and some even have their own languages. Examples include:
The last 4 states are non-sovereign parts of the United Kingdom
A sovereign state (sometimes called an independent state) has the following qualities:
Space or territory which has internationally recognized boundaries
People who live there on an ongoing basis
Ability to issue regulations governing foreign and domestic trade
The ability to issue legal tender that is recognized internationally
An internationally recognized government which provides public services and has the right to make treaties, wage war, and take other actions on behalf of its people
Sovereignty, meaning that no other state should have power over the country’s territory.
There are presently 195 sovereign states in the world (197 by some counts); 193 are members of the United Nations (the United Nations excludes Palestine and the Holy See). Two other entities, Taiwan and Kosovo, are recognized by some but not all members of the United Nations.
Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people which share a common language, institutions, religion, and/or historical experience. Some nations are sovereign states, but many are not; some of those nations that hold internationally recognized territory but are not sovereign states include:
The Indian Nations of the United States
When a nation of people has a sovereign state of their own, it is called a nation-state. Populations living in nation-states share a history, language, ethnicity, and culture (though, of course, most nation-states now include populations of immigrants who do not share the local culture). Places like Iceland, China, or Japan are examples of nation-states: the vast majority of people born in those nation-states share the same ancestry and culture.
The word country is most often used to mean the same thing as sovereign state. It can also be used in a less political manner to refer to a region or cultural area that has no governmental status. Examples include Wine Country (the grape-growing area of northern California) and Coal Country (the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania).
An empire is a state that has a territory of a number of smaller states under a single sovereign authority through military force. This authority in the past has been called “Emperor”, but in practice could be anything. An example of an empire is the Roman empire or British empire. A recent historical example of an empire is the USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republics).
Paticularly in reference to Biafra’s status the terms referendum, secession, civil war, and independence are commonly used interchangably. There are clear differences between these words.
Referendum is a general vote by an electorate on a single political question that has been referred to them for decision. Examples of referendum include the Scottish Referendum in 2014 and British Referendum in 2016 Referendum is a multi-lateral process that requires all sides to agree to a general vote conducted by the people in a pre-determined space.
Secession is a unilateral (meaning implemented by one side only) political process of withdrawal from a body of which one has joined. An example of this is the declaration of independence of the 13 colonies which lead to USA’s Revolutionary War. The entity from which the colonists declared independence was the same entity through which they were incorporated as “colonies”.
Civil War is a war that exists between citizens of a larger state or body. Typically civil wars involve some province or provinces of a state trying to seperate themselves from the state.
Independence is a condition of being “not dependent” on anyone or entity. In practice it means that a state is sovereign or in control of its affairs. Independence means self-determination and that a state is completely self-governing.
To continue with our example using America, America began as colonies of Britain that were subject to the Britain. The Declaration of Independence was a seccessionist declaration that seperated the colonies from Britain and called them the “United States of America”. This led to the Revolutionary War. In Britain’s eyes the colonists were secessionists, rebels, and terrorists. In the colonists eyes they were freedom fighters.
It is a common Nigerian misconception that Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1967. The British invaded Precolonial Biafra and forced Biafrans into the empire called Nigeria. We did not secede from Nigeria in 1967 because Biafra never agreed to join Nigeria. This political situation is similar to France during Nazi-German occupation or some Eastern European countries while the USSR existed.
Biafrans had a nation-state before colonialism and between 1967 and 1970. Currently our nation-state is under occupation by Nigeria and has been for the last 50 years. We wish to restore our independence. The problem of Biafra in Nigeria can easily be resolved by Nigeria allowing Biafrans to choose their future for themselves through a free and fair referendum.