In the course of political struggle in northern Ghana, the classification of land and resources has shifted between the two ‘master categories’ of public and private. Despite the fact that master categories may be wholly inadequate in accounting for the actual complexity of property objects, social units and rights, they are not divorced from the agency of people who have something at stake. Laws, rules and by-laws are referred to as important markers and fashion the local political struggles over the rights to and control over resources. This article offers a general account of conflicts and the recategorization of resources in the property system of small-scale irrigation. It examines the logics and positioning of the different stakeholders, and discusses how different levels of public policy have provided opportunities for such changes. A case study presents the opportunity to examine the details of a particular controversy demonstrating the social and political powers involved in the recategorization of property.