Why do some states provide access to a key public good, electricity, to their citizens, while others do not? We examine this question by explaining the remarkable differences in the level of access to electricity between Ghana and Uganda. Today, Ghana is ranked second in its electrification rate while Uganda is placed among the lowest on the African continent. The comparison of these two cases is valuable because these countries were at roughly similar starting points prior to British colonial rule; both countries shared similar centralised precolonial state capacity and the potential resource endowment for large-scale hydropower. We argue that divergent political histories of state building in the energy sector in the two countries created contrasting citizen expectations around the public provision of electric power over time. The paper draws on archival sources, policy documents, newspaper coverage, and interviews with donors, politicians, policymakers, NGO leaders, business people, and citizens to analyse the differences in development paths. We find evidence for a persistent difference in the role of the state over time in the two cases. Despite similar pressures from donors, we hypothesize that the formulation of the post-independence social contract has long legacies for contemporary citizen expectations and the implementation of current policy reforms.