After intense international wrangling, they signed an accord in June, agreeing to allow the return of authorities and to garrison their fighters ahead of the election. Only they chose to garrison them in the very buildings that are supposed to serve as the seat of the provincial government.
The governor, Adama Kamissoko, sleeps in a concrete shell instead of the relative elegance of the Governor's Mansion.
"It's true that the governor's residence is a symbol. But what we are all focused on is the election. We can prepare for the election in any number of buildings," he said just 48 hours before the vote. "If my country asked me to come here and live under a tent, I would do it. The priority is the vote."
The rebels in Kidal say the governor better get used to his makeshift accommodation. The NMLA's communications officer in Kidal, Mazou Toure, happily showed reporters the Governor's Mansion, which he calls "le bureau du president," the president's office. By "President" he means the NMLA president.
They meet every morning in a salon decorated with faux leather couches, holding their daily briefings. Nearby are more Malian buildings which house the rebel police and rebel army.
He scoffed at the accord signed by his superiors at the NMLA last month, which paved the way for the army and the governor to return.
"We said what people wanted to hear. We signed what they wanted us to sign," Toure said. "We agreed in the short-term to abandon the idea of independence, but we have definitely not renounced it in the long term. ... We're allergic to the Malian flag."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Kidal, Mali.