The African Union and the sub-regional bodies on the continent have a formal commitment to democracy. Yet African mediators and mediating organizations have often compromised democratic principles in fundamental ways. They have endorsed undemocratic power-sharing arrangements, validated undemocratic elections, annulled democratic elections, accepted the overthrow of elected leaders and governments, legitimized coup leaders and consented to amnesty for human rights abuses. This paper analyses these compromises in terms of interests, power, ethics, strategy and norms. Whereas the International Relations literature on international norms concentrates on ethically ‘good’ norms that challenge prevailing ‘bad’ norms, the paper identifies and examines incompatibilities between different sets of good norms. In situations of high intensity conflict, tensions might arise between the norms of democracy and those of peace and security, and between democratic norms and mediation norms, such that mediators have to choose between them. This situational incompatibility of positive norms poses a profound dilemma. The mediators’ willingness to compromise democracy reflects their conviction that peace and security are higher norms than democratic principles. It also flows from international mediation’s normative association with peacemaking, as opposed to democracy promotion, and from the mediation norms of consent and inclusivity, which in intra-state conflict are disposed towards negotiated agreements, power-sharing and compromise rather than outright winners and losers.