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Whether depicted as bloated, extractive, or remote from the lives of ordinary citizens, the African state is widely seen to lack the necessary capacity to provide for the physical and material security of its citizens or to command legitimacy. Yet scholars have rarely attempted to assess the performance of the African state through the prism of the lived experiences of those whom the state is meant to serve – its citizens. Most studies rely on data supplied by national statistics agencies or the judgments of expert observers. And while scholars acknowledge that the quality of the African state is likely shaped by geographic and ethnic differences within countries, few have measured how state capacity varies at the sub-national level. In this paper, we address this situation by using survey research measures of respondents’ proximity to state services and actual experiences with civil servants to measure two distinct dimensions of the state salient to the African context: its reach, or physical presence at the grassroots across the breadth of a country, and its professionalism, or ability to deliver public services in a proficient and ethical manner. The results reveal new perspectives on which states excel on either or both dimensions. They also illustrate how widely state performance varies at the sub-national level. Finally, we use survey data to assess the performance of the state, and show that it is the degree of professionalism, and sometimes reach, that enables the state to provide security and welfare, satisfy demands, and secure popular legitimacy. But in contrast to usual expectations, the size of the state at senior levels has no impact.