The recent presidential campaign here, besides having the rare distinction in Africa of offering five candidates instead of only one, was exceptional because of the public debate generated about the traditional political influence of the mystical Islamic marabouts, religious leaders who are also known as the "grand electors" in this predominately Moslem country.

The victor, President Abdou Diouf, 47, set off a political debate when he gratefully accepted the marabouts' virtual religious sanctioning of his candidacy. The move prompted his political rivals, for the first time in Senegal's history, to criticize publicly what had become a time-worn practice. The endorsement, nevertheless, is thought to have brought Diouf hundreds of thousands of Moslem votes.

The debate as well as a recent disturbance in Senegal and other similar clashes throughout West Africa reflect the agitation of an emerging class--formed in the two decades since independence by the rapid expansion of education--that has begun openly to challenge traditional patterns of political behavior. In some instances, this new group has become a major headache for African governments, especially when its challenges turn on narrow interests that stir parochial strife.

In West Africa, this group has begun to agitate strongly for political reforms, liberalization of political rights, punishment of official corruption and a more equitable distribution of national wealth.

These concerns, in part, formed the basis of an inconclusive two-week, nationwide April high school teachers' strike that shook the normal tranquility of the Ivory Coast. The same issues also have been some of the underlying causes of upheavels in Liberia, Ghana, Upper Volta, Sierra Leone and Gambia.

Senegal is exceptional in Africa since it has an eight-party political system and a history of tolerance for dissent so that issues are readily raised here publicly. But these concerns being raised by the emerging political activists also can feed grievances of regional, ethnic or sectarian movements. And minority groups who perceive their interests are being slighted can easily disrupt the vulnerable social and economic fabric of an African country.

The rebirth in December of a generation-old secessionist movement in Senegal's Casamance region, south of the enclave-like country of Gambia, deeply distressed the Senegalese government, according to western diplomatic and Senegalese sources. The area, which was the scene of a violent three-day student riot three years ago, has long been a sensitive concern for the government. During the bloody Gambian rebellion two years ago, the Senegalese moved troops quickly into Gambia and crushed the uprising, in part, so Gambia could not become a base to exacerbate alienation in Casamance.

Nevertheless, on Dec. 26, several hundred separatists in the Casamance regional capital of Ziguinchor demonstrated outside the governor's office in favor of secession from Senegal and replaced the Senegalese flag with one of their own.

At the basis of the protest, said the western and Senegalese sources, all of whom declined to be identified, has been the economic neglect of Casamance since independence in 1960. Casamance has approximately 850,000 of Senegal's estimated 6.2 million people.

The country's resources, the sources said, have gone into developing the northern peanut-growing region, which produces the country's largest cash crop. In the first decade of independence, the lion's share of the government's efforts to develop industries and profitable government-run businesses was put into areas in or east of Dakar, the sources added.

It is difficult to document how much money Senegal has spent on these regions or economic concerns since the government has done almost no auditing of the expenditures. Yet since independence, areas such as Casamance, the southeast around Tambacounda and the northern river region bordering Mauritania received little government attention, said one Senegalese rural development official, who refused to be identified. The Casamance also has been estranged from the rest of Senegal because Islam plays a comparatively small role in the traditional African religions that predominate there. Elsewhere in Senegal, where 80 percent of the people are Moslem, Islam has broken down many of the old social barriers between ethnic groups.

Senegalese sources said the lingering use of Portuguese Creole language in Casamance and the cross-border affinity of the Casamance people, especially among the Diola, with their ethnic counterparts in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, have deepened their feeling of isolation from the French-speaking Senegalese government.

The December demonstration in Ziguinchor, which was led by the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces, produced clashes with police in which about a dozen people were injured, none seriously, according to the French news agency and one western diplomatic source. Interviewed in his Ziguinchor office, Casamance Gov. Moussa N'Doye angrily refused to answer any questions about what he indicated is a sensitive subject.

"It is a political matter," said N'Doye as he hurriedly ushered a reporter out of his office. "It is not discussed." Sixty-three people were arrested after the demonstration.

A gadfly 55-year-old Catholic priest, Augustin Djamakoun Senghor, whom the government newspaper Le Soleil identified as the leader of the Casamance separatist movement, was among those jailed. Forty-eight people were released on parole in April and 15, including the priest, are soon to be tried on sedition charges, a government source in Dakar said.

Other Senegalese sources said the government is sensitive about the Ziguinchor demonstrations because it does not want them to spread. In the past, articles published by Le Soleil have acknowleged the region's history of neglect. Officials also realize, said the official source, that the growing educated population, which is now at about 20 percent, is willing to challenge the government on any future gross discrepancies in the distribution of resources but they do not want more demonstrations.

"Demonstrations can get out of hand," the official source said.

A Senegalese historian, who grew up in Casamance, said the separatist movement began in the 1950s. "The anger over the past neglect" is exacerbated today "when the recession has made it so there is less to go around," he said.

Since 1980, peanut prices have fallen 50 percent to 9 cents a pound. With less revenue, Senegal is having severe problems paying its $5 billion debt and could have an $80 million balance-of-trade deficit this year.

The Ziguinchor demonstration seemed to serve one of its purposes of bringing attention to Casamance, said Senegalese and western sources, because Diouf made his first visit to the region as president just before the February election.

Diouf, who won the election after filling out the last two years of the previous president's term, appointed four ministers from Casamance to his 29-member Cabinet, more than there had been before. Several efforts through an intermediary to reach these ministers for an interview were unsuccessful.

In a move seen as a political reform, Diouf dropped from his Cabinet 12 of the ministers from the previous government of Senegal's first president, Leopold Senghor, who voluntarily retired. Among those dropped was an unpopular Socialist Party leader from Casamance.