A dramatic increase in the use of antiretroviral drugs in Africa has increased focus on adherence to treatment, which has so far been equivalent if not superior to that in northern contexts. The reasons for this exceptional adherence are poorly understood. In this paper, we examine adherence in the historical and ethnographic context of access to treatment in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. Living where there is no social security and minimal, if any, medical care, individuals diagnosed with HIV are faced with the threat of illness, death, ostracism and destitution, and were obliged to negotiate conflicting networks of obligation, reciprocity, and value. HIV and AIDS programmes value efforts to address social, and indeed biological, vulnerability. In contrast, kinshipbased social relationships may value individuals in other ways. These conflicting moral economies often intersect in the worlds of people living with HIV. HIV status can be used to claim resources from the public or non-governmental organization programmes. This may interfere with social networks that are the most stable source of material and emotional support. Self-help and empowerment techniques provided effective tools for people living with HIV to fashion themselves into effective advocates. In the early years of the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), access to treatment was thus mediated by confessional practices and forms of social triage. We introduce the term ‘therapeutic citizenship’ to describe the way in which people living with HIV appropriate ART as a set of rights and responsibilities to negotiate these at times conflicting moral economies. Exemplary adherence should be viewed through the lens of therapeutic citizenship.