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.