Guillermo O’Donnell drew attention to “brown spots” in Latin America’s political topography, which he defined as peripheral regions where the presence of the republican state is attenuated and more arbitrary forms of power hold sway. Similarly uneven projections of state authority are visible across sub-Saharan Africa. This paper reviews three ways of explaining such unevenness in the state’s reach: (a.) a geographic, economic, and demographic determinism perspective, (b.) a historical-sociological perspective, and (c.) a political perspective centered on strategic bargaining between social actors and state actors. We propose that unevenness in state quality is often an artifact of state-building, rather than evidence of state failure. An analysis of statebuilding in modern Africa, focusing on Côte d’Ivoire, explores some of these dynamics.